Saturday, April 1, 2017

Breaking Down MLB's 2017 Opening Day Slate

It's been a long time coming but we have finally made it to Opening Day. While most teams will begin their seasons on Monday there are three games being played on Sunday, April 2nd as part of an ESPN triple header. It's not the best slate of games I've ever seen but it's definitely worth watching. Let's take a look at the outlooks for each team playing:

1:10 PM Yankees (Tanaka) at Rays (Archer)

Chris Archer will throw out the first pitch of the 2017 season following a very disappointing year prior. Archer had a mild breakout in 2015 when he finished fifth in the Cy Young voting with 252 strikeouts in just 212 innings. Now he's a major bounce back candidate entering the year with enticing 14/1 odds to win the AL Cy Young. According to Bovada the Rays have an over/under of 77.5 right now, which would be a big improvement on last year's last place finish of 68 wins. This figures to be another rebuilding year for Tampa Bay as they try to build a team to make the playoffs for the first time since 2013.

The Yankees are also in the middle of a rebuild, but thanks to their prospects and budget are a lot closer to contending than Tampa. Oh and they have perhaps the best offensive catcher in baseball in Gary Sanchez. That helps. "El Gary" is the face of the Yankees rebuild after he hit 20 homers with a .299/.376/.657 triple slash line last year. Despite playing in just 53 games Sanchez finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting (and probably should have won). Now obviously he isn't going to be hitting homers at the rate he was last season but 35+ isn't out of the question. It remains to be seen if New York has the starting rotation to be playing meaningful games come September but even if they don't in 2017 it won't be long until they are.

4:10 PM Giants (Bumgarner) at Diamondbacks (Greinke)

It's tough to screw up an off-season worse than the Arizona Diamondbacks did coming into last year. It was a classic example of a team thinking they are way closer to the playoffs than they really were and now the franchise is in a much worse spot than they could have been in. The first major mistake a year ago was trading NUMBER ONE OVERALL DRAFT PICK AND BLUE CHIP PROSPECT Dansby Swanson (plus Ender Inciarte) to the Braves for Shelby Miller. While Miller pitched well in 2015 there were stats to show it wasn't repeatable. He got sent down to AAA last season while Swanson looks like he's going to be one of baseball's next great shortstops. Then the team signed Zack Greinke to the highest average annual salary ever for a starting pitcher. This move wasn't as egregious at the time because when you need an ace in free agency you have to overpay, but so far the signing has back fired. Last year Greinke registered a 4.37 ERA and so far this spring his velocity is down to the 88-89 mph range. It's going to be a long summer in Arizona.

The visiting Giants are in a much better place than their division rival. The magic of the "even year" narrative died in 2016 when the team lost to the Cubs in four games in the opening round of the playoffs. If it wasn't for a game four bullpen collapse the Giants would have forced a deciding fifth game against Chicago with the Cubs playing under the weight of a 108 year World Series drought, which means anything could have happened. Giants President of Baseball Operations Brian Sabean recognizes that the time to win is now with Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey in their primes, so he went out and signed closer Mark Melancon to anchor the back end of the bullpen. The Giants haven't made the playoffs in an odd numbered year since 2003 but if they find a way into the dance then their postseason experience makes them the Cubs' biggest threat in the National League.

8:35 PM Cubs (Lester) at Cardinals (Martinez)

Major League Baseball hasn't seen a repeat champion since the Yankees won three in a row from 1998-2000. Yet since then no reigning champ has been better positioned to defend their title than the 2017 Chicago Cubs. That isn't to say nothing can go wrong for them this year. Last year's team defense ranked as one of the best ever so that is bound to regress, the starting rotation piled on a lot of extra innings from the post season, and the bullpen won't be as dominant without Aroldis Chapman. Still, the Cubs are as perfect of a baseball team as you're ever going to find. It honestly feels like a team constructed through franchise mode from a video game. That's how easy roster building has become for 2020 President elect Theo Epstein. The Cubs are so ridiculously well set up for both the present and the future that it's time to start guessing how many rings this group will end up with.

Oh how the tides have turned in the NL Central. For the past century the St. Louis Cardinals have been to the Cubs what a poor man's version of the Yankees were to the Red Sox for all those years. Now that there's no end in sight for this expected run of Chicago dominance the Cardinals will have to adjust to the reality of competing for the NL wild card for the foreseeable future. The Cardinals spring got off to a terrible start when they lost baseball's top pitching prospect to Tommy John surgery. It's unfortunate the Cubs aren't opening their season at home but I expect the St. Louis crowd to be fired up Sunday night. Their bid to dethrone the Cubs as division champs will begin with their new ace of the rotation Carlos Martinez. It will be the first Opening Day start for the 25-year-old. In 2016 he won 16 games with a 3.04 ERA.

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