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2017 MLB Preview: Part 3

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Welcome to the third and final installment of the Swarthmore Phoenix 2017 MLB Season preview. With three articles devoted to the story, the MLB season preview has become the second-most covered topic by our newspaper, coming in just behind the endless coverage of divestment. There are ten more teams left to preview. Among these ten are guaranteed flops and potential World Series contenders.

Oakland Athletics: The Oakland A’s play in one of the worst stadiums in the MLB. The visitor’s clubhouse is often flooded due to issues with the stadium’s sewage pipelines. The sewage in the clubhouse matched the A’s performance on the field last year, as they finished a disappointing 69-93. The A’s had an unusually busy free-agency period and signed over $30 million in new deals with Santiago Castilla, Matt Joyce, Trevor Plouffe, and Rajai Davis. These signings were especially questionable as they don’t seem to make the team any more competitive, and may block the growth of top prospects such as Third Baseman Ryon Healy. On the mound, the A’s hope that Sonny Gray can return to the dominance he showed in his first three seasons instead of pitching like he did in 2016, where he had a 5.69 ERA. At the plate, the A’s hope that Khris Davis can repeat his output from last year and post another 40 home run season. Like the Yankees, the A’s are caught between rebuilding and competing now. Unlike the Yankees, the A’s do not have a particularly good team or farm system, so their problem is that neither option seems possible for them at the moment. The A’s will probably miss the playoffs once again this season.

Pittsburgh Pirates: If I were writing this preview at the start of the season, I would’ve mentioned how excited I was to see how Starling Marte adjusts to manning center field for the first time in the MLB this season. Going into the season, he was a sleeper MVP candidate, and at the very least, I would’ve expected him to have an All-Star season. However, Marte was suspended 80 games for violating the league’s Performance-Enhancing Drugs policy, so we won’t be seeing too much of him this season. Without Marte, the Pirates will be especially reliant on an Andrew McCutchen rebound year if they hope to make the playoffs this season. McCutchen was third in the MLB in WAR from 2012-2015, but his productivity fell off a cliff last year. He posted a -0.7 WAR last season, which made him a below-replacement level player. On the mound, the Pirates hope for more magic from their pitching coach Ray Searage, who has revitalized many lost careers over the past few years. Their rotation will include Gerrit Cole, who has shown flashes of the potential that once made him the top pitching prospect in baseball. Pittsburgh also has a deep farm system that includes top prospects such as pitcher Tyler Glasnow and outfielder Austin Meadows. Overall, the Marte suspension reduces the slim chances the Pirates had at a Wild Card spot, and it will be a tough road for Pittsburgh if they hope to make the playoffs.

San Diego Padres: The Padres are barely an MLB team. Their opening day roster had a combined payroll of $31 million, which is less than what David Price will make this season. They’re probably going to be the worst team in the MLB this year. However, they have some bright spots. First Baseman Wil Myers is returning from a breakout year where he made his first All-Star team, and outfielder Hunter Renfroe is going to compete with Dansby Swanson for the NL Rookie of the Year award. They provide a solid 3, 4 combination in the lineup, and at 26 and 25 years old respectively, they should make up the Padres core for the foreseeable future. On the mound, Carter Capps will likely anchor the bullpen, throwing 100 mph despite having one of the weirdest deliveries I have ever seen. Perhaps the most interesting thing for the Padres going into next season is the fact that they are planning on using Christian Bethancourt as a backup catcher, outfielder, and relief pitcher this year. Overall, the Padres will likely lose a lot of games, but they will be fun to watch.

San Francisco Giants: It is not an even year, so the Giants will probably miss the playoff this year. So far in the 2010s, the Giants have missed the playoffs in 2011, 2013, and 2015, but won World Series in 2010, 2012, and 2014. In all reality, the Giants do actually have a good team on paper this year. Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto are a good top of the rotation pair. Buster Posey is one of the top catchers in the MLB, and Hunter Pence is a solid player despite looking like a weird mix of a mad scientist and crackhead. However, despite the signing of closer Mark Melancon, the Giants bullpen is still a disaster and will probably cause them to lose the majority of their one and two-run games once again this season. In addition, Bumgarner recently hurt himself riding a dirt bike, and it looks like he will miss the next six to eight starts, which will make the Giants play catch-up for the rest of the season. Overall, a talented roster will probably underperform and the Giants will likely miss the playoffs this year.

Seattle Mariners: The Mariners may be a trendy pick to sneak into the playoffs in the AL this year. They have a solid core of second baseman Robinson Cano, designated hitter Nelson Cruz and third baseman Kyle Seager. Felix Hernandez has been one of the best pitchers in the AL for what seems like forever now, and he finally has found another stud to help him at the top of the rotation in lefty James Paxton. Out of the pen, Edwin Diaz improved his slider and looks like he could be among the best relief pitchers in baseball this season. The Mariners were extremely busy in the offseason acquiring numerous players such as outfielder Jarrod Dyson, who will assume the leadoff spot for Seattle this year. Despite the fact the fair-weather Seattle fans are too busy claiming diehard fandom of the Seahawks to be aware of the fact their city has an MLB team, Seattle may make a run at the second AL Wild Card slot this season.

St. Louis Cardinals: The Cardinals missed the playoffs last season for the first time since 2010. However, they made one of the biggest offseason signings with outfielder Dexter Fowler, who will fill the leadoff slot in the lineup this year. Matt Carpenter made the transition in the offseason from third base to first base, which the Cardinals hope will result in more offensive output from their top hitter. Yadier Molina is still the best defensive catcher and provides a big boost behind the plate to an already deep pitching staff that includes Adam Wainwright’s unhittable curveball and “little Pedro” Carlos Martinez, both of whom are likely All-Star selections. The Cardinals won’t win the NL Central (the Cubs are too good), but they look like they will compete for one of the NL’s Wild Card spots this year.

Tampa Bay Rays: Last season was the worst year for Tampa Bay since they were called the Devil Rays. This season does not look much better. The Rays will likely once again deal with rumors all season about proposed trades involving third baseman Evan Longoria and pitcher Chris Archer. However, they likely won’t move these two key members of their core, since they’re still signed to relatively cheap contracts and the Rays do not have a lot of money to work with elsewhere. There are a lot of unknowns for Tampa Bay this year, like shortstop Matt Duffy, who has looked good in brief MLB appearances between injuries. In the bullpen, Alex Colome is set at closer, and the rest of the roles are up for grabs. Catcher Wilson Ramos is still rehabbing a knee injury and likely will not return behind the plate this year, instead filling the DH role in the second half of the season. Overall, the Rays look like they’ll be left behind in a tough AL East.

Texas Rangers: The Rangers won 95 games last year, which at first looks like an extremely successful season. However, they only outscored their opponents by a total of 8 runs over the course of the year, which means they heavily overperformed with clutch hitting, an unsustainable statistic. This year’s roster looks to be much improved from the previous season’s team. Yu Darvish has returned from an arm injury, and when he’s healthy, he is among the top arms in the AL. However, he’s been hurt so much recently that he has not pitched enough innings to qualify for a full season since 2013. Martin Perez and Andrew Cashner are also injury-members of the starting rotation, which looks to be the lower-calorie version of the Met’s rotation. At the plate, the Rangers added outfielder Carlos Gomez midseason last year to lead off an already talented lineup that includes underrated future Hall-of-Fame member Adrian Beltre and alternate-universe heavyweight boxing champion Rougned Odor. If the Rangers’ pitching staff can remain healthy, they will be in good shape in the AL West division race.

Toronto Blue Jays: The Blue Jays somehow accomplish the impossible and make me dislike Canadians, since this team is so obnoxious. Their fanbase is even worse. For the past two years, Blue Jays fans have disrupted playoff games by throwing beer cans on the field while the game is still in action, and two years ago, one of the cans hit a baby. This may be why I thought the best part of last year’s MLB regular season was when Rougned Odor of the Texas Rangers clocked Toronto outfielder Jose Bautista and knocked his sunglasses clear off of his face. One redeeming quality for the Blue Jays is the fact that they employ Josh Donaldson, who turned himself into a perennial MVP candidate by following the groundbreaking hitting advice to actually try to hit the ball in the air instead of hitting weak backside ground balls, a philosophy which surely disappoints youth baseball coaches everywhere. The rest of the lineup is solid, with bright spots that include shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, catcher Russell Martin and DH Kendrys Morales. However, they lost a key contributor in Edwin Encarnacion, who led the AL in RBIs in 2016. On the mound, they have World Baseball Classic MVP Marcus Stroman, who hopes to transfer his WBC success into his first ace-level MLB season. The Blue Jays have a good lineup, but a tough AL East will likely not be theirs to win, so their playoff hopes will rest on their ability to get the second Wild Card.

Washington Nationals: If all goes right, the Nationals could be a scary team to face in October this year. Their success will start with outfielder Bryce Harper, whose productivity steeply dropped from his phenomenal 2015 MVP season. Also at the plate, Daniel Murphy continues an odd mid-career resurgence that saw him lead the NL in OPS and finish second in NL MVP voting behind Kris Bryant. The Nationals also have last year’s NL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, who is absolutely unhittable when he is on. Sophomore shortstop Trea Turner will look to continue his rookie success as a leadoff hitter for the Nationals. The biggest issue will be the rest of the rotation behind Scherzer. Stephen Strasburg has shown flashes of brilliance but has been on the disabled list eight times in his seven-year career and has only pitched one full season. Another bad sign for Washington is that manager Dusty Baker has lost nine straight potential series-clinching playoff games. If Harper comes back hot and Strasburg can remain relatively injury-free, the Nationals will be one of the few teams able to challenge the Cubs for the NL pennant.

2017 MLB Preview Part II

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After two weeks of baseball, it is tempting to immediately jump to conclusions about how well teams are going to do this season. However, as anyone who has taken a statistics class could tell you, conclusions based on small sample sizes are often inaccurate. For example, Tuffy Rhodes started off the 1993 season with a bang, as he hit three home runs for the Cubs on Opening Day and led them to a big first win. He proceeded to hit only five more home runs that year and hit .234 for the season, regressing to his normal status as a below-average MLB player. Basically, I am saying that it is still totally acceptable for me to be writing a season preview. Let’s take a look at the next 10 teams in part two of the three part series.

Houston Astros: Despite the fact they switched leagues over four years ago, I still get confused every time I see the Astros listed as an American League West team. As a result of the move, interleague play begins at the start of the season, and I irrationally hate the Astros for messing up the schedule like this. One redeeming factor for the Astros is that they have one of the coolest players in baseball with Jose Altuve, who is one of the best hitters in baseball despite being 5’5”. They added veteran talent at the plate with Designated Hitter Carlos Beltran and Catcher Brian McCann, and they will bolster an offense that Fangraphs, a leading MLB statistics website, projects to lead the MLB with 4.96 runs per game. They also have the best bullpen in the league based on Wins Above Replacement (WAR), which will bode well if and when the Astros play in close postseason games. Overall, the Astros are a good dark horse World Series pick.

Kansas City Royals: The Royals were a great anti-sabermetrics example in 2014 and 2015, where they made back-to-back World Series appearances despite projection models predicting sub-.500 seasons each year. Manager Ned Yost will sacrifice bunt, aggressively steal, and instruct his players to swing early in the count and not look for walks, all strategies that directly oppose those of “Moneyball”. The team’s fortunes reverted back to matching their mediocre statistical projections last year, and this year does not look like it will be any better. They lost ace pitcher Yordano Ventura to a tragic car accident in the Dominican Republic, and didn’t make any big offseason moves to bolster their roster. The Royals may benefit from a weak AL Central, but they don’t seem likely to make the playoffs this year.

Los Angeles Dodgers: The Dodgers once again have the highest payroll in baseball, which gives them a heavy advantage to start the year. They have Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher in baseball, who will probably win another Cy Young award as long as he stays healthy. On the mound, the Dodgers also have Julio Urias, who makes me feel really bad about my own baseball abilities considering he is a year older than me and already a solid MLB pitcher. At the plate, they have an MVP candidate in Corey Seager, who is only 24 years old and already one of the best shortstops in the league. L.A. also has Yasiel Puig, who will either be garbage like he has the past few years or will dominate with his raw talent like he did in 2014. The Dodgers will probably be good, but their World Series chances depend heavily on how burned out Kershaw gets this year, and also on him hopefully not turning into a mortal during the playoffs as he has almost every other time he’s pitched in the postseason.

Los Angeles Angels: I feel bad for Mike Trout. He’s the best player in baseball, but won’t receive nearly as much attention as he should because the Angels are trash. He is the all-time leader in WAR through a player’s age 24 season, and has won two AL MVP awards and probably deserves at least two more. Despite his Hall-of-Fame talent, the only national advertising I have seen for Trout has been on the boxes of microwaveable soft pretzels. Beyond Trout, the Angels really don’t have much to help him out. Albert Pujols, who was at one point the best player in all of my baseball video games, is just average now, but will be paid $28 million for what will likely be around 1.0 WAR. His sudden drop in productivity does seem to lend credibility to the conspiracy theory that he’s really five years older than he claims. Garrett Richards will either be at the All-Star game or rehabbing his elbow from Tommy John surgery when we get to July. Unfortunately for Trout and for all baseball fans, I think this will be another year that the postseason will not feature baseball’s best player.

Miami Marlins: The Marlins faced a lot of adversity in 2016, especially after their ace pitcher Jose Fernandez was killed in a boating accident. The team has some bright spots going into this season, but none shine brighter than Giancarlo Stanton. Stanton is the best raw power hitter in baseball. He had half of the ten hardest-hit balls last year based on Statcast exit velocity, and he’s demonstrated his power with mammoth dingers in games and in the home run derby, which he won last season. Stanton’s biggest issue in the past has been durability, as he’s only played more than 125 games once over the past five seasons. Beyond Stanton, the Marlins have a lot of potential in the outfield with Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich, who both have a lot of upside and are already among the NL’s better outfielders. The biggest question mark will be pitching, as the Marlins return a rotation with a 4.70 ERA, which puts them near the bottom of the NL. Miami has potential, but will need some luck, as they will be dealing with one of the better divisions in baseball.

Milwaukee Brewers: The Brewers haven’t made the playoffs since 2011, and this doesn’t look to be the year they break their streak. Ryan Braun is the only remaining star from that team. He’s likely going to give the Brewers another solid season. The rest of the roster is filled out with young talent with high upsides. Jonathan Villar hit 19 home runs and stole 62 bases last year, and looks to build on that success this year at second base. Junior Guerra, who once went five years without an MLB contract but now features one of the filthiest splitters in the league, leads the pitching rotation. The future looks bright for Milwaukee, especially due to their top-three farm system, but this doesn’t appear to be their year.

Minnesota Twins: The Twins were the worst team in baseball last year, losing 103 games. They probably won’t pull off a worst-to-first run this year. They still look to be building for a future that does look promising, but does not look like it will be realized anytime soon. Top prospect Byron Buxton finally started hitting well in his September call-up at the end of last season. Miguel Sano also had a great rookie season two years ago, but regressed last year. If these two play to their potential, the Twins will be scary in the middle of the order. Joe Mauer can still be a solid contributor if he stays healthy. Out of the bullpen, Craig Breslow reinvented his delivery and looked great in Spring Training. Another pitcher to watch is Jose Berrios, who was dominant in Triple-A last season, but was shelled in his 58 major league innings. The Twins probably won’t be good, but they won’t be the worst team in the MLB for two seasons in a row.

New York Mets: The Mets may have the scariest starting rotation in the MLB. That rotation carried them to the World Series two years ago, but they faltered last year due to injuries and the fact they had to face Madison Bumgarner in an elimination game in the postseason. If the rotation stays healthy, no team will be able to compete with a rotation of Noah Syndergaard, Jacob DeGrom, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz, and Zach Wheeler. However, in baseball, arm surgeries are not sure fixes, and many pitchers never regain their pre-injury abilities. Statistically, with four pitchers coming off surgeries, at least one of their stud arms will have some problems. On the offensive side of the ball, the Mets are lead by outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, king of fancy cars and riding horses. If everything goes well and injuries are avoided, the Mets look like they’ll once again make the postseason and challenge the Cubs in the NLCS.

New York Yankees: One of the weirdest developments across the MLB is the fact that the Yankees actually have a decent farm system. Most baseball fans are used to the Yankees just relying on absurdly high payrolls and big-time free agent signings rather than actually developing talent. Unfortunately, for pretty much any sane person, the Yankees may be good this year. Gary Sanchez went on a tear in the final third of the season and finished second in AL Rookie of the Year voting. The Yankees signed Aroldis Chapman to the largest relief pitcher contract in baseball history over the offseason, apparently deciding that they needed him again after trading him away last July. The Yankees are in a weird half-rebuilding, half-trying-to-win state, and we’ll likely see which direction they decide to go in once we reach July and see what their record is at the trade deadline.

Philadelphia Phillies: The Phillies are projected to finish second-to-last in the NL this season. I looked up their roster and the first player I recognized was Clay Buchholz, which is not a good thing. Buchholz is infuriatingly inconsistent, as any Red Sox fan will tell you. I’m sure that he’ll finally pitch up to his potential now that he left Boston, but even if he does, the Phillies have an extreme lack of developed talent at the big league level. They may be good by the time I graduate Swarthmore, as they have the makings of a Big Three in their starting rotation with youngsters Vince Velasquez, Jerad Eickhoff, and Aaron Nola. 2013 number one draft pick Mark Appel may finally make his MLB debut this year, but there’s no reason to rush his development. Overall, the 2019 Phillies look like they’ll begin to compete with the Mets and Nationals for NL East dominance.

Stay tuned for part three of the MLB season preview, where my predictions will probably start to be influenced by actual production on the field this season. Until then, enjoy April baseball and all of the absurdities that it brings, and, more importantly, the faint hope of your team bringing home a World Series title this year.

2017 MLB Preview: Part One

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The MLB season kicked off on Sunday with the New York Yankees visiting the Tampa Bay Rays. If you’re a casual fan of baseball, you may have tuned in and asked yourself why the MLB decided to kick off the season in the half empty-janitor’s closet that is Tropicana Field. Don’t be discouraged, as this season will be an exciting one. If you need a team to root for, pick your favorite the list of teams below. If not, wait for one of the next two installments in this three-part series.

Arizona Diamondbacks: The Diamondbacks’ fate this year will probably depend on how well Zack Greinke pitches. If he reverts to his 2015 form and posts another 1.66 ERA, his 6-year, $200 million contract will be seen as less of a bust, and Arizona may be able to compete for a Wild Card spot. First baseman Paul Goldschmidt is one of the best hitters in baseball and will be called on to carry the offensive load. However, the National League West appears to be tough, and the D-Backs just don’t look talented enough to make the postseason this year.

Atlanta Braves: The Braves have shortstop Dansby Swanson, who has one of the best names in the MLB and is my pick for NL Rookie of the Year. They signed 40-plus-year-old pitchers Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey this offseason to beef up their rotation. Colon has been surprisingly effective despite being 43 years old and looking like he couldn’t pass the PACER test. Dickey continues to fill the important role as the MLB’s only current knuckleball pitcher. Atlanta will be fun to watch, but they will probably not be any good. Also, they moved out of Atlanta this offseason and into Cobb County, also known as the home of every overbearing baseball dad in the country.

Baltimore Orioles: One of the players to remember on the Orioles is closer Zach Britton, who posted an absurdly low ERA of 0.54 last season. Unfortunately for Baltimore fans, manager Buck Showalter did not remember Britton in last year’s Wild Card play-in game, as he left Britton in the bullpen despite being on in a tied, extra-innings, winner-takes-all game, which eventually ended the Orioles’ season. The Orioles also hit a lot of home runs, which make them fun to watch. Showalter’s teams usually perform above expectations, so it would not be surprising to see the Orioles claim one of the AL Wild Card slots.

Boston Red Sox: The Red Sox made the biggest move of the offseason in acquiring pitcher Chris Sale, who will join a loaded starting rotation that includes two other Cy Young candidates in David Price and last-year’s winner Rick Porcello. Outfielder Mookie Betts will be an MVP candidate and leads a lineup that looks to be stacked. The Red Sox should be World Series contenders, which means that Chris Sale will likely be another big offseason signing that turns out to be a bust (see Pablo Sandoval, Price, Carl Crawford, etc). This may or may not just be my attempt not to jinx my favorite team.

Chicago Cubs: The Cubs broke the Curse of the Billy Goat last year and won their first World Series in 108 years, so we can all get ready for their fans to be insufferable as they transition from being lovable losers to cocky bandwagoners. Unfortunately, they look primed to repeat as champions this year. Swarthmore students can look to fellow nerd and Dartmouth grad Kyle Hendricks as a potential favorite player. He led the NL in ERA last year, but the Cubs are so stacked that he is their third starter, behind Cy Young candidates Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester. Outfielder Jason Heyward rebuilt his swing over the offseason, and looks to improve on his absolutely terrible season at the plate last year that made some fans question his $180 million contract.

Chicago White Sox: Southside Chicago’s team looks to be in the midst of rebuilding, as evidenced by their Chris Sale trade. They were able to acquire top prospect Yoan Moncada in return, whom I’ll likely get to watch back home over the summer as he plays for their Triple-A affiliate, the Charlotte Knights. Pitcher Jose Quintana will likely follow Sale and be traded at some point this summer in return for more young prospects. It’s probably not the best time right now for White Sox fans, as they have to suffer through another losing season while their cross-town rivals will likely make another deep postseason run. However, the White Sox’s time will come in the next few years, as their young prospects arrive at the MLB level.

Cincinnati Reds: The Reds have the fastest player in baseball in outfielder Billy Hamilton. He was second in the MLB in steals last year despite only having 460 plate appearances, and if he plays a full season, he will likely take the stolen bases crown. Joey Votto is still good and still plays for the Reds. Otherwise, they really do not have a lot of big names and will be riding young pitching this year, including Rookie Davis, who is another promising prospect with a great name. If the youngsters perform well, the Reds can pull off a winning season, but it’s very unlikely that they’ll be able to grab a Wild Card slot.

Cleveland Indians: The Indians hope to replicate their 2016 success this year as they chase their first World Series title since 1948. Manager Terry Francona made shockwaves through the baseball world last year, when he made the controversial decision of having his best pitcher, Andrew Miller, pitch the most important outs of a game, instead of saving him for the 9th inning. Francona’s masterful use of Miller and Cody Allen out of the bullpen brought them within one rain delay of winning a championship last year, and it will be interesting to see how Francona will use Miller and Allen over the course of a 162 game season. Cleveland’s pitching will make them a tough team to beat in the postseason, and it would not surprise me to see them make another run to the World Series this year.

Colorado Rockies: The Rockies will be really good (in two or three years). They have an outstanding amount of young talent, and they flashed some bits of greatness last year. Third Baseman Nolan Arenado will compete for the NL MVP and probably win another Gold Glove. Shortstop Trevor Story will hope to have a full season that matches his debut last April, where he hit seven home runs in his first six games. Jon Gray will lead the rotation, hoping to continue his success from last year, where he finished with the highest wins above replacement (WAR) among rookie pitchers. Pitching will determine Colorado’s success this year and the years to come, and it just does not look like they will have a strong enough rotation this year to make the postseason.

Detroit Tigers: The Tigers failed to reach the postseason for the second consecutive year last season, so many fans expected to see the front office unload some of their $200 million in contracts over the offseason. However, Detroit decided to give this roster one last shot, and the core of the team has remained relatively the same. As always, Justin Verlander will compete for an AL Cy Young award, and Miguel Cabrera and Ian Kinsler will produce at the plate. If the core stays healthy, Detroit will be in a good spot for the Wild Card. If they have to deal with injuries to Verlander and Cabrera, they’re going to fall behind too quickly to keep up in the AL Central.

Next week, I will continue the MLB preview with ten more teams. This season is shaping up to be an exciting one, and I am looking forward to what it brings.

First look: This year’s MLB Postseason

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As another MLB season chock full of storylines and controversy comes to a close, let us first reflect on the season before getting swept up in the rush of playoff baseball. In the beginning of a the new era, the Cubs seem primed to have a shot at a World Series, having not won a championship since 1908. The MLB also implemented new timing rules in an attempt to “Make Baseball Fun Again.” We saw multiple legends end their careers, as sluggers David “Big Papi” Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez both declared their retirement. It was a season of controversy between the famed Odor-Bautista brawl at second base and the usual never-ending hatred of umpires. Most of all, it was just another MLB season, full of the pleasure and fun that have made baseball America’s pastime.

      October baseball has begun, and the pool of contenders for World Series Champion has been narrowed down to eight teams. Before I make any claims or predictions about any of these teams, I should make a caveat: I was born in Maine and have lived in Washington, D.C. most of my life. I have been a lifetime Red Sox fan and a Nationals fan since they came to D.C. in 2005. I will try to keep as much of my personal bias out of this piece, but without further ado, my predictions for the 2016 MLB playoffs are as follows.

      The Baltimore Orioles will not win the American League Wild Card game. As much as I love our orange, aviary friends up Interstate-95, I believe that the Orioles cannot survive on their shaky pitching rotation. While Chris Tillman was tremendous in the first half of the season, he has since fallen off track. Dylan Bundy and Ubaldo Jimenez have picked up the slack for him, helping the O’s clinch a spot in the postseason. However, Bundy’s rookie status moved the O’s to shut him down after reaching his inning limit, while Ubaldo has proven to be one of the streakiest pitchers in the MLB since his record year with the Rockies. I will admit the Orioles have a solid lineup and one of the most underrated bullpens in the MLB, but their incredible home record of 50-31 at Camden Yards this season is not encouraging as they’ll have to face the powerhouse Blue Jays at the Roger’s Centre in Toronto .

The Toronto Blue Jays will get KO’d by the Rangers in the AL Divisional Series. While I do believe they will win the Wild Card game, our friends from above the border will unfortunately have to take on the red-hot Texas Rangers. Earlier this year, this matchup resulted in one of the more memorable moments of this MLB season when Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor knocked the helmet and sunglasses off of Blue Jays fielder José Bautista with a vicious right hook to start a bench-clearing team brawl. Animosity aside, this is the best Rangers team we have seen since Ron Washington’s squad lost in the World Series in 2011. While the Rangers certainly had success early in the season on the backs of their pitching rotation, which included players Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels, their front office made some key additions. After signing Ian Desmond in the offseason, accurately predicting a big comeback after his devastating season last year, the Rangers continued to make big moves in acquiring Carlos Beltran, Carlos Gomez, and Jonathan Lucroy. Their line-up already consisted of perennial All-Stars Adrian Beltre and Shin-Soo Choo. Frankly, the Rangers only have a small achilles heel in their bullpen, meaning they have a better shot at winning games early on in any series and will probably be hindered as they get deeper into the postseason.

The Washington Nationals will win their NL Division Series and lose in the NL Championship Series. This season’s Nationals team is quite different from last season’s platoon of players. As devastating as last year’s early exit from the postseason was, this Nationals team will only have so much gas in the tank this year. While you could chalk off the past few year’s losses to poor decisions from manager Matt Williams and poor performance from closer Drew Storen, it would be a tough case to argue that Dusty Baker’s career .421 playoff win percentage would do much to change that. I will say that the Nationals have definitely made some improvements, finding a more youthful pitching staff, led by Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer. Similarly, Daniel Murphy has proven that he can hit in the postseason just as well as anyone else, but, with Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos out for the postseason because of an ACL injury, I am pained to say that the Cubs stand the best chance of winning the NLCS.

     In a previous article, the Phoenix had mentioned that this might finally be the Cubs’ year.  As much as I would love the Cubs’ World Series drought to continue, they, nonetheless, have a strong shot at bringing home a trophy. I have to give General Manager Theo Epstein credit as he was the mastermind behind quickly building a powerful team composed of both elderly and youthful talent. The Cubs appear similar to the Orioles in that they both have starters that carry the team for a short streak before the next one picks up. This works in the long-term season, but in a short five or seven game series, premier arms like Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks can only start twice. Ace Jake Arietta has simply fallen off since the All-Star break, posting a 3.69 ERA and a dismal 12.60 ERA in his most recent start. While there’s certainly an argument to be made for the Cinderella story, I’m afraid this is just not the year, Cubbies.

The Boston Red Sox will win the World Series. Yes, I am a Red Sox fan, but I am making this decision based purely on objectivity. The Red Sox, hands down, have had the best offense in the MLB this year. Between Jackie Bradley Jr.’s impressive streak earlier in the season and Mookie Betts’ breakout season, the Red Sox are moving into postseason play with an unforgivingly high level of momentum. The Red Sox were red hot with a stellar 11-game win streak coming into the playoffs. The Red Sox also have one of the most underrated rotations of the year between David Price, Rick Porcello, and Drew Pomeranz. Losing Steven Wright and Cuban sensation Yoan Moncada to injury does not sit well, but considering the Red Sox depth on the bump and in the outfield, they should be fine. Similarly, the return of Koji Uehara, adding onto the already stellar closing battery of Junichi Tazawa and Craig Kimbrel, serves as an impressive boost for the Red Sox playoff run. If all goes well, the Red Sox are destined to bring home a trophy.

For the Cubs, this could actually be the year

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With the Major League Baseball Playoffs just around the corner, people are starting to wonder whether or not some of baseball’s hottest teams will pull through in the stretch-run. The Chicago Cubs, in particular, have been putting on a real show since the start of the season. The Cubs, the first to clinch their division during the regular season, started off hot and continued to dominate throughout the lull of the mid-season summer heat. As one of the oldest teams in professional baseball, the Cubs’ organization is often thought of instantly when someone mentions the sport, but their history is often shrouded by seasons of utter failure and discontentment.

    One of the most famous downward spirals for the Cubs involved a man named Steve Bartman. In 2003, during game six of the National League Championship Series, Moisés Alou, left-fielder for the Cubs at the time, ran over to the left field wall, outside the foul line, to catch a fly ball that would have been the second out of the eighth inning. During the play, Steve Bartman, a Cubs fan, reached over the wall to catch what appeared to be a rewarding foul ball he could later take home and show off to his friends. As he leaned over the railing to snag the fly ball, Alou jumped up to record what would have been the second out of the inning. His spectacular play was thwarted by Bartman’s soon to be regretful hands. Because of Bartman’s interference on the play, Alou dropped the fly ball and the inning continued. At that point, the Cubs were up by three runs, but ended up losing the game soon after the incident. They went on to lose the NLCS to the Florida Marlins, who also won the World Series that year. Bartman was escorted from the game by security guards and had to disguise himself whenever he went out in public thereafter. Ever since then, the Cubs were cursed with bad luck during postseason play, and have yet again come that close to reaching the World Series.

     However, the Cubs are all too familiar with curses already. Along with the Bartman incident, Cubs fans are very fond of the Curse of the Billy Goat. The curse originates from 1945, when a fan was asked to leave game four of the 1945 World Series because his goat smelled too repulsive to be around others in attendance at Wrigley Field, the Cubs home stadium. While the fan was leaving, he shouted at bystanders prophesizing that the Cubs would never win another World Series. The Cubs went on to lose the 1945 Series and have not been to a World Series since.

    Since their most recent World Series title in 1908, the Cubs have suffered seasons with win percentages as low as 36.4 percent. Despite these hardships, the Cubs have been successful during some of their not-so-unfortunate seasons, including this past year when they went on to win 97 of their 162 regular season games, a praiseworthy year.

     This year’s outstanding athletic showcase nothing short of impressive. The Cubs are on pace to win more than 100 games, a prized feat in professional baseball. This success comes several years after the Cubs’ horrendous 2012 campaign, where they managed to lose over 100 games. One might be curious as to how an organization can go from a 100-loss team to a 100-win team in only a matter of a couple years. The answer, young talent. Anthony Rizzo, 27, and Kris Bryant, 24, have yet again placed themselves at the top of the National League leaderboard in  home runs, while Kyle Hendricks currently leads the MLB with the lowest earned run average. Jake Arrieta, another starting pitcher for the Cubs, leads the NL in wins this season. The Cubs’ sensational talent has caused doubt in some fans of opposing teams. If the Cubs repeat their postseason run similarly to last year, those fans will not have much to worry about. After losing to the Mets in the National League Division Series last year, their promising regular season turned into a distant memory.

     The absurdly young talent that leads the Cubs will be put to the test again this year, with all resources at their disposal. They have the talent, the fans, the momentum, but it all comes down to which team will thrive under pressure. With an impressive season, they have the ability to win it all. However, the Cubs may once again be hindered by the Curses of Steve Bartman and the Billy Goat of 1945.

Baseball Teams Bolster Their Menus, Not Lineups

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The Burgerizza, Atlanta’s new menu addition

It’s finally springtime, which means all the baseball-minded people of the world rejoice in the ending of the cold, indoor sport-oriented months of winter. Baseball has officially awakened from its yearly hibernation. High school and college teams across the country are halfway through their seasons, and baseball at the professional level has just begun.

Baseball makes springtime that much more beautiful. It adds culture and excitement to the warm, sunny days of the year when plants and trees re-bloom after the harsh winter. Seeing the flowers in the ground blossom and the trees fill with leaves are pleasant sights. Some regard spring as the artistic work of God, while others regard spring as the earth’s gift to humans. I personally have seen some pretty impressive and mesmerizing works of nature during the springtime in my life. Baseball season is one of them. There are many aspects of baseball that parallel the grandiose and magnificent art that is nature during the spring. Perhaps the most prominent aspect of the game must be the stadiums where the games themselves are played.

Baseball stadiums are some of the most overlooked pieces of art in America. There’s something indescribably special about the crisp air on a gorgeous day, the roar of 50,000 fans cheering their hearts out, the sound of the bat hitting the ball, and the smell of heart-clogging food that can only be found in a baseball stadium. Overall, going to a baseball game can be a positive experience for anyone.

This year, Major League organizations wanted to kick it up a notch and make visiting their work of art an even greater experience. Ball clubs all around the country bolstered their ballpark menus by adding some of the most delicious, yet unhealthy items the mind can conceive.

The most intriguing item is easily the Sweet Potato Waffle Chicken Sandwich. This sandwich, a grilled chicken breast with greek yogurt wrapped in a thick, fluffy sweet potato waffle, can only be found at Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros. It’s definitely worth a try for everyone.

The award for the unhealthiest ballpark addition goes to none other than the Champions Alley Hot Dog, unique to Kauffman Stadium, home of the Kansas City Royals. This deep-fried, foot-long hot dog has been tightly wrapped in bacon and sinfully battered in tempura, all while drowned in coleslaw and ketchup. In case that didn’t take 10 years off your life, it’s also served on a salty pretzel bun.

The most creative work of culinary art that can be found in a major league park is the Hill Meatball Cone.  A native of Busch Stadium, home of the St. Louis Cardinals, this dish is exactly what it sounds like. Here, Italian bread is carefully crafted to take the shape of an ice cream cone, and is then stuffed with Italian sauce, parmesan, and hearty meatballs.

The best American dish, and my personal favorite, that can be found at a ballpark is the Burgerizza. This combination of a burger and pizza can be devoured only at Turner Field, home of the Atlanta Braves. The Burgerizza is a scrumptious burger that goes beyond the basics. Stuffed between two eight-inch pepperoni pizzas is not only a 20-ounce patty, but sizzling bacon and cheddar cheese as well. Athletes should probably refrain from consuming this monster.

Although one would think baseball teams focus solely on bolstering their lineup card, many teams this year showed the work they put into bolstering their menus.  Even though it may seem like this change is minuscule to the game, these additions make enjoying the atmosphere of a baseball game and appreciating the artwork of a baseball stadium that much more amazing. The new entrees have not only broken the stereotype that baseball fans can only be found with a hot dog, nachos, and cracker jacks, but have added a creative twist that helps make springtime beautiful.

New Diplomacy Impacts National Pastime

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Over the past several years, the United States’ relationship with Cuba has undergone some dramatic changes. Although the re-establishment of diplomatic relationships with Cuba may hold great political implications, it should not come as a surprise that this new relationship has a direct impact on Major League Baseball. Many MLB executives and organizations have actually expressed excitement toward these recent changes and have noted that these changes could represent a significant alteration in the way MLB organizations acquire Cuban players.

International players in general already play a major role in baseball, as 224 international players made opening day rosters in 2014, accounting for 26.3% of opening day roster players. It is undisputed that the Dominican Republic and Venezuela dominate the international player pool. Combined, the two countries made up 63.4% of all international players and 16.6% of all players in general in 2014. Although Cuba comes in a respectable third, players that defect from the country tend to make ginormous impacts. Five Cuban players were selected to play in the All-Star Game in 2014: Jose Abreu, Yoenis Cespedes, Alexei Ramirez, Yasiel Puig, and Aroldis Chapman. Abreu and Cespedes have established themselves as two of the most feared hitters in baseball. In Abreu’s rookie year in 2014, he led the American League in slugging percentage and OPS+ while batting .317 with 36 home runs and 107 runs batted in. Abreu not only won the Rookie of the Year Award, but also was awarded Silver Slugger and came in fourth place in MVP voting. During Cespedes’ four years in the major leagues, he has averaged 30 home runs and 103 runs batted in per full season while setting career highs in both categories in 2015. Chapman has established himself as one of the best closers in baseball and holds the world record for fastest pitch ever thrown at 105.1 MPH.
It’s pretty clear that Cuban players have made themselves known in the game of baseball. However, getting players from Cuba to come play in the major leagues is a difficult and sometimes painstaking process. In fact, MLB organizations have to jump over several hurdles before signing international players in general. Signing players from Cuba can be even more difficult. Because of Cuba’s communist regime, Cuban players seeking to sign a contract with an American club must either defect from the country or undergo a very long process to leave Cuba legally. Most players choose to defect. In fact, MLB.com reports that infielder Yoan Moncada, who is currently in the Boston Red Sox organization, “is the only known top player to leave the island legally.”

Defecting is a risky process. A “defector,” according to Wikipedia.org, is one who “gives up allegiance to one state in exchange for allegiance to another, in a way which is considered illegitimate by the first state.” Players must first find a way to escape Cuba. Many players have reported finding their way onto a boat to any other country that isn’t communist or escaping while playing on the national team in another country. Once the player has escaped, he has left Cuba illegally. In order to be eligible to sign a major league contract, a player must establish residency in another country. If a player establishes residency in the United States, he becomes eligible for the First-Year Player Draft, where he will most likely receive a significant cut in his signing bonus. Although it may seem like the process is simple enough, defecting players are forced to hire a “front man” who plays the role of agent to the player. The front man, who sometimes provides services for players to escape, ensures that the player is able to completely defect from Cuba and transition into the United States. However, the player is usually held captive by his front man until the front man has been compensated for his services, which a player usually pays for by sacrificing a fraction of his contract. After establishing this residency, he must petition for free-agency from the MLB, which usually takes several months but is not a very hard process go through, and requested to be unblocked by US Office of Foreign Assets Control. Once a player has done all of this, he may sign a contract and begin playing baseball in America.

The process is never guaranteed, as some players do not receive sizeable contracts and/or can’t reach the major leagues. Should a player fail to reach the major leagues, he is not allowed back into Cuba. Cuban players often defect from Cuba knowing that they may never see their families again.
It’s easy to see how diplomatic relationships with Cuba affect baseball. Inspired by recent progress, the MLB and Cuba have agreed to let the Tampa Bay Rays travel to the island to play an exhibition game against the Cuban National Team on Tuesday, March 22 of this year. This will be the first time a major league team will be allowed into Cuba to play since the Baltimore Orioles in 1999. This historic game marks a step in the right direction for giving Cuban players a smoother, clearer, and safer path for pursuing the game they love.

Patience in Sports

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It seems that patience is slowly dying out in our current instant gratification society. Why make this rather obvious, somewhat philosophical observation in a sports column? Well, in my view at least, this societal trend has become particularly noticeable within professional sports. It has become dangerous for team organizations to be patient because of fans, sponsors, and pundits who constantly clamor for results in the present. As a result, teams are constantly pressured to throw around money in hopes of providing immediate entertainment, and are sometimes forced to prioritize that over long-term development.

There are certainly many examples where these short-term approaches have led to the desired results. However, there are also teams who’ve been patient, stuck with a plan no matter how hard things got, and eventually found a level of success that made the wait worth it. Which way is better? It’s worth seeing some real examples to figure this out and see if there’s a good answer.

I’ve actually experienced both ends of this patience spectrum during the last year or so from teams that I follow. On the patient end, there was the New York Mets this year. Up until then, they had gone nine seasons without a playoff appearance. In 2010, they had hired a new general manager, Sandy Alderson, and manager, Terry Collins in hopes of restoring success. However, they failed to go above .500 for many years. During its losing years, the team dropped many former star players and instead opted to strengthen its farm system.

Despite the years of mediocrity, the organization stuck with Alderson and Collins partially because of the promise of impressive prospects in the farm system who would eventually be able to help out the team. Gradually, these prospects came onto the scene and did not disappoint. The pitching staff in particular got stronger from year to year, beginning with the team’s “Dark Knight” Matt Harvey. Mets fans were used to mediocrity, and had no problem dealing with it during those years with the hope that the promised improvements would come to pass.

In 2015, the Mets’ patience finally paid off. Their pitching staff, although one of the youngest, was also amongst the best in the MLB. The team grinded out wins and, before they knew it, had a solid 90-72 regular season and rode its momentum all the way into the World Series before the Royals finally stopped them. All of us Mets fans who had spent years in misery suddenly had nothing bad to say, as our team showed the league what all of its potential could amount to and that they had now become one of the teams to beat. There have been few seasons from any of my favorite teams I’ve enjoyed more, and it would have never happened without the intelligent moves and the patience of the Mets organization.

On the impatient end, though, I had the New York Jets. Just before the 2015-2016 season, they had fired head coach Rex Ryan, who had been with the organization for six seasons. His first two seasons saw immediate success, with the Jets ending both just one win away from the Super Bowl.

From there, things began to spiral downwards for Ryan and the Jets, who found themselves unable to pull off a season above .500. The team stuck with Ryan through that time because of his strong relationship with and support from the players. Furthermore, with his booming personality and defense-focused approach, Ryan seemed to have the potential needed to give the Jets what they needed to be winners. Unfortunately, the Jets became somewhat of a laughingstock throughout the NFL for many mistakes they made (most notably Mark Sanchez’s “butt fumble”) and never realized their potential, leading to Ryan’s firing after a 4-12 record in 2014. I was initially very frustrated with that decision, because I felt that he had proved, during his first two seasons, the success he could have if he had the tools needed. It felt to me that the Jets cut him off before he could fully develop those tools to make the team truly special.

However, during the most recent season, the Jets went on to go 10-6 and just barely missed the playoffs under new head coach Todd Bowles. Suddenly, the atmosphere around the team became much calmer, which seemed to help Bowles focus and make the most use out of the admittedly mediocre resources he had on hand—pushing a slightly above-average quarterback like Ryan Fitzpatrick to break many franchise records was no small feat.

So now we seem to have two contradictory situations. The Mets, after waiting through many miserable seasons and developing their younger players, now have a successful team that looks strong for years to come. On the flip side, the Jets benefited from losing their patience and finding someone who could make the most of the somewhat mediocre set of players the team currently had. Is there a point to all that deliberation?

The key seems to be that patience is a path to success only if it is done right. Patience, by nature, requires people at the helm who can slowly develop a system without building up pressure. Collins and Alderson have these traits; both are quiet, uncontroversial guys who create few problems and maintain calm presences in the organization. Ryan, however, constantly predicted almost every year that the Jets would be contenders for the Super Bowl, had an overly strong media presence that always put the spotlight on the Jets for the wrong season, and made the Jets into a bit of a circus. Bowles was able to come in and calm things down, which seemed to be the best course of action for the Jets in the end.

Patience is still a good thing for teams to practice. It provides a sense of stability, and can make for some longer-lasting success if the team is willing to deal with failure along the way. All teams might not have the ideal atmosphere to do that, but those who do and can pull it off certainly earn more respect from me. Perhaps the only way to make it common would be if all fans could respect patience within teams; maybe then patience could finally become something that everyone recognizes as worth working towards. For now, though, all that I can do is just sit and hope that others learn from teams like the Mets and try to emulate their patient approach. In the long-run, the anticipation as you wait combined with the excitement when the desired goals are reached really can make sports more fun to follow.

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