2017 Division Previews – American League Central

Welcome to part five of 500 Level Fan’s season preview series. Today’s focus is on the AL Central.

Defending Champion

Cleveland Indians

Past Five Champions

2016 – Cleveland

2015 – Kansas City

2014 – Detroit

2013 – Detroit

2012 – Detroit

Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 92.0

Best Player

Francisco Lindor, Cleveland Indians

Francisco Lindor only made his major league debut midway through the 2015 season but has already established himself as one of the top players in the game.  In his first full season in the big leagues, Lindor posted a .301 / .358 / .435 / .794 slash line with 15 HR, 78 RBI, 99 R, and 19 SB.  He is also an elite fielder with a +17 DRS metric that ranks him as the second best defensive shortstop in the AL.  And if that wasn’t enough, Lindor also proved that he has nerves of steel, refusing to wilt under the intense pressure of postseason baseball.  He posted a .310 / .355 / .466 / .820 slash line in leading Cleveland to within one run of the World Series title.  To top it all off?  He’s only 23.

Honourable Mention: Miguel Cabrera, Tigers; Edwin Encarnacion, Indians

Best Pitcher

Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers

Just when you thought he was finished, Verlander turned back the clock with an outstanding 2016.  After two straight down seasons, Verlander topped the AL with 254 strikeouts and a 1.00 WHIP while posting a 16-9 record and a 3.04 ERA.  He (arguably unjustly) finished second in Cy Young voting and even cracked the top-20 in MVP balloting.  The most impressive part of Verlander’s campaign was how he finished it.  At a time when many players on the wrong side of 30 were wearing down late in seasons, Verlander went the other way, posting an 8-3 record, 1.96 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, .180 opponent batting average, and 134 strikeouts in his final 16 starts from mid-July to early October.  He almost single-handedly kept an underperforming Tigers team in the playoff chase right down to the season’s final day.

Honourable Mention: Corey Kluber, Indians; Jose Quintana, White Sox

Three Storylines For 2017

1. Edwin Goes to Cleveland

The Cleveland Indians came within an eyelash of winning the city’s first World Series since 1948,.  Instead of sitting back and hoping the same core could take that one extra step, the Indians shocked the baseball world by signing the top available power hitting free agent.  After being linked to teams like Boston, New York, Houston, Texas, Colorado, and his previous team in Toronto, Encarnacion chose the Indians with a 3-year $60-million deal.  Edwin’s presence in the lineup will more than compensate for the loss of Mike Napoli to free agency and provides Cleveland with a true slugger, arguably baseball’s most consistent masher over the past five years.  Add to that a full season of bullpen ace Andrew Miller and the return of Michael Brantley, Danny Salazar, and Carlos Carrasco, and you have the clear favourite in the Central.

2. Talent Exodus

2017 could be a very interesting year in terms of who ends up leaving the division.  The White Sox have already started a rebuild by dealing Adam Eaton and Chris Sale, and releasing Brett Lawrie.  Closer David Robertson, starter Jose Quintana, and position players like Melky Cabrera and Todd Frazier (and maybe Jose Abreu?) could be next.  There is every reason to believe that Minnesota will send 42-HR second baseman Brian Dozier packing.  And with Cleveland the prohibitive front-runners, a slow start by either of Detroit or Kansas City might see those clubs start moving big name pieces.  It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Ian Kinsler, Justin Verlander, or even (gulp) Miguel Cabrera on the move.

3. Minnesota Kids

Banking a team’s future on prospects is a dangerous proposition: for every Mike Trout there is a Kevin Maas.  That is why the Minnesota Twins are so interesting this year.  The Twins are banking their future on not just one, but five highly rated prospects, each aged 23 or younger.  Outfielders Byron Buxton (2) and Max Kepler (30), infielder Jorge Polanco (99), and starting pitcher Jose Berrios (28) were each ranked in Baseball America’s top-100 prospect list in 2016, and third baseman Miguel Sano was #13 on the 2015 list.  All five are expected to be on the Opening Day roster and bear the responsibility of bringing the Twins back to respectability.  However, the early major league returns have not been great.  All four position players posted OPS totals of below .800 in 2016, Buxton and Sano struck out at alarming rates, and Berrios was an outright disaster on the mound (3-7, 8.02 ERA).  Minnesota will be preaching patience but if the quintet continues to struggle, both the near and long-term future will be bleak.

Interesting Stat

4.22.  That was Detroit’s bullpen ERA in 2016, 3rd worst in the AL.  Unfortunately for Tigers fans, that was nothing new.  The Tigers finished 14th in bullpen ERA in 2015, 13th in 2014, 12th in 2013, 10th in 2012, and 11th in 2011.  They haven’t finished in the single digits since 2010 and haven’t finished in the top half since 2006.  So what did Detroit do this offseason to improve their putrid pen?  Absolutely nothing.  But that might actually be a good thing.  Detroit has seemingly been making an effort to remake its ‘pen for years, employing a different setup man / closer combo each season since 2012.  By bringing back mostly the same group in mostly the same slots, maybe familiarity will lead to better results.  After all, it can’t get much worse.

Who Should Win


Who Will Win

Find out in my season prediction column at the end of March

2017 Division Previews – American League West

Welcome to part four of 500 Level Fan’s season preview series.  Today’s focus is on the AL West.

Defending Champion

Texas Rangers

Past Five Champions

2016 – Texas

2015 – Texas

2014 – Los Angeles

2013 – Oakland

2012 – Oakland

Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 94.2

Best Player

Mike Trout, LA Angels

Is an explanation even necessary?  Trout put up yet another unbelievable season in 2016.  He led the league in Runs (123), Walks (116), OBP (.441), OPS+ (171), and WAR (10.6), while winning his second MVP award.  In fact, the 10.6 WAR was tied for the 113th best single season mark in big league history, tied for the 40th best single mark since 1920, and tied for the 6th best season since 2000. And the scary thing is that he seems to be getting even better.  From 2015 to 2016 Trout reduced his number of strikeouts by 21, walked 24 more times, stole 19 more bases, and improved his defensive metrics.  About the only thing he didn’t do was drag his injury riddled team into the playoffs.  Just give him the 2017 MVP now.

Honourable Mention: Jose Altuve, Astros; Robinson Cano, Mariners

Best Pitcher

Cole Hamels, Texas Rangers

Last season was a real down y ear for pitching in the AL West.  Many of the division’s aces struggled, either with injury, underperformance, or decline.  Names like Darvish, Hernandez, Iwakuma, Gray, Keuchel, McCullers, and Shoemaker left a lot to be desired.  And then there was Cole Hamels who put up his typical All-Star worthy season.  It was another 200-inning, 200-strikeout, sub-3.50 ERA campaign for the lefty, who added a 15-5 record to the mix.  More importantly for the Rangers was the fact that he made all 32 starts, providing stability to a rotation that badly needed it.

Honourable Mention: Felix Hernandez, Mariners; Yu Darvish, Rangers

Three Storylines For 2017

1. Texas Threepeat?

In 2015 the Texas Rangers lost Yu Darvish for the season yet somehow won the AL West.  In 2016 they dealt with the sudden and abrupt retirement of Prince Fielder, a half-season from Darvish, a year-long injury saga with Josh Hamilton, and a middling +8 run differential to somehow outlast Houston and repeat.  All of which begs the following questions: what will go wrong in 2017 and how will they once again overcome?  IF they are to threepeat they will do so with a different roster.  Gone are Mitch Moreland, 2016 standout Ian Desmond, and trade deadline acquisition Carlos Beltran.  But fellow deadline pickup Jonathan Lucroy is back for a full season, Darvish is (presumably) healthy, and Texas brought back Mike Napoli to try and plug the DH hole.  The big questions are in the rotation.  Will Darvish stay healthy and will new signees Tyson Ross and Andrew Cashner provide anything?  If so, the Rangers are set up well to once again lose to the Jays in the ALDS.

2. Houston Going for Broke

2016 was a mess for Houston.  A year after making the playoffs for the first time with their young core, a terrible start put the Astros in a hole they couldn’t dig themselves out of.  The team regressed to 84 wins and an October spent watching TV.  To rectify that, Astro management decided to go all-in on 2017.  They opened up their wallets and brought in Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, Josh Reddick, Nori Aoki, and Charlie Morton.  The absurdly talented core returns intact, with Altuve, Correa, Springer, and Bregman bolstering the lineup.  The season may hinge on an inconsistent rotation.  If 2015 Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel can return from shoulder surgery and find his form, this one scary, scary team.

3. Breaking Another Drought?

The Seattle Mariners are the current holders of a title that nobody wants: baseball’s longest playoff drought.  But if there is good news for the Mariners it’s that baseball has been in a habit of breaking droughts recently.  The Giants broke a 56-year World Series drought in 2010.  The Pirates broke a 21-year playoff drought in 2013.  The Royals broke a 29-year playoff drought in 2014.  The Blue Jays broke a 22-year playoff drought in 2015.  And of course the Cubs broke a 108-year World Series drought last season.  The Mariners haven’t reached October since 2001, but they sit poised to end that dark period in 2017.  Jerry Dipoto took his 86-win team that barely missed the playoffs and made a ton of moves to put them over the hump.  In are Jarrod Dyson, Yovani Gallardo, Carlos Ruiz, Jean Segura, Danny Valencia, and Drew Smyly.  Electric closer Edwin Diaz will handle the 9th inning for a full season, and with Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager, and Robinson Cano all back, this is a team that could make some noise.

Interesting Stat

It’s hard to be blown away anymore by Mike Trout.  The guy is simply unreal.  But let’s try: In five full seasons (plus a 40-game stint in 2011) Trout has compiled a career WAR of 48.5, a total that places him 327th on MLB’s all time list.  To reiterate, Trout has played only five full major league seasons and doesn’t turn 26 until August, yet he already ranks in the top 2% of all players to ever play the game.  If his 2017 performance matches 2016, Trout will pass such notables as Sandy Koufax, Nellie Fox, Ralph Kiner, Dennis Martinez, Bernie Williams, Fred Lynn, Minnie Minoso, Kirby Puckett, Fred McGriff, Davit Ortiz, and Whitey Ford on the career list.  Projecting future performance is a fool’s game but Trout is on a historic pace, one that could conceivably see him cross the 100-WAR threshold by the time he hits his early 30’s.  For perspective, only 32 players in major league history have ever reached that mark, and Trout might get there still in his relative prime.  Incredible.

Who Should Win


Who Will Win

Find out in my season prediction column at the end of March.

2017 Division Previews – National League East

Welcome to part three of 500 Level Fan’s season preview series. Today’s focus is on the NL East.

Defending Champion

Washington Nationals

Past Five Champions

2016 – Washington

2015 – New York

2014 – Washington

2013 – Atlanta

2012 – Washington

Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 95.0

Best Player

Bryce Harper, Nationals

Harper’s numbers fell off a cliff last season, but he remains the best, most dynamic and most polarizing player within the confines of the NL East.  After winning the MVP award in 2015 Harper was expected to continue his rise to superstardom, potentially even joining (or passing) Mike Trout as baseball’s top player.  Instead he fell apart.  He hit 18 fewer HR and 14 fewer 2B, scored 34 fewer runs, drove in 13 fewer runs, and his batting average decline by 87 points, his OPS drop by 295 points, and his WAR drop from 9.9 to 1.6.  But he gets the nod here due to his raw talent and his youth, ahead of a few veterans who posted career years (Daniel Murphy and Freddie Freeman), and a few other enigmas like himself (Yoenis Cespedes and Giancarlo Stanton).

Honourable Mention: Yoenis Cespedes, Mets; Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins

Best Pitcher

Max Scherzer, Nationals

The East is loaded with ace quality pitchers, but it’s hard to pick against the 2016 NL Cy Young award winner.  Scherzer was electric last season, topping the league with 20 wins, 228.1 IP, 284 strikeouts, and a 0.968 WHIP.  His season was highlighted with a historic start in May against Detroit, when he tied the major league record with 20-strikeouts in a 9-inning game.  Last season marked the fourth year in a row he has finished in the top-5 in Cy balloting.  With down years by franchise cornerstones Harper and Strasburg, he was one of the main reasons behind Washington’s NL East division title.

Honourable Mention: Noah Syndergaard, Mets; Jacob deGrom, Mets

Three Storylines For 2017

1. Division of Enigmas

The word enigma is defined as a person or thing that is mysterious, puzzling, or difficult to understand, and no division has more players that fit that definition than the NL East.  As discussed earlier, Bryce Harper is one of baseball’s most confounding players.  Is he the player who won the Rookie of the Year award as a 19-year old in 2012 and posted one of the best single seasons in MLB history while winning the MVP in 2015?  Or is he the guy who missed 106 games in ’13 and ’14 due to injury, or whose performance cratered in a miserable 2016?  But Harper is far from alone.  Stephen Strasburg, Giancarlo Stanton, and Matt Harvey have all been anointed to baseball’s upper echelon only to fall flat seemingly year after year.  To a lesser extent, players like Travis d’Arnaud and Steven Matz (NYM), Odubel Herrera (PHI), Marcell Ozuna (MIA), and Matt Kemp (ATL) continue to fall short of lofty expectations.  It will be interesting to see how many (if any) of these players can finally take the next step forward.

2. New York Health

Heading into 2016 the New York Mets starting rotation was labelled baseball’s best by several publications.  And why not? Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz, and Jacob deGrom were fresh off leading the Mets to the World Series, and they were set to joined by top prospect Zack Wheller.  But due to a variety of injuries, things have yet to work out in the Big Apple.  Only Syndergaard reached the 30 start plateau in 2016.  deGrom was held to 24 starts, Matz to 22, and Harvey to only 17.  Wheeler, meanwhile, hasn’t thrown a big league pitch since September of 2014.  If healthy, this group still projects as elite.  But with the departure of Bartolo Colon to Atlanta, there is even less room for injury in 2017.

3. Intrigue in Atlanta

Long the model of consistency, the Atlanta Braves have fallen on hard times with back-to-back 90+ loss seasons.  But things are getting very interesting in Atlanta.  With the team set to move into a brand new stadium, it is clear that they don’t plan on rebuilding for long.  Several shrewd trades over the past year have gifted the Braves several exciting young players, including former number 1 pick Dansby Swanson and Ender Inciarte, adding them to a team that already had the talented Freddie Freeman and Julio Teheran.  With a bunch of live arms in the high minors the Braves then acquired several veterans to provide leadership and stability, including Matt Kemp, Brandon Phillips, R.A. Dickey, Bartolo Colon, and Jaime Garcia.  There is a very good chance that the Braves lose over 90 games and finish last again.  But there is also a shot that everything comes together and they surprise a lot of people.  Regardless of what happens, it will definitely be interesting.

Interesting Stat

The Miami Marlins enter 2017 as fringe contenders.  After losing 82 games in 2016, the Marlins will no longer have Jose Fernandez fronting their rotation meaning the middling additions of Edinson Volquez and Dan Straily will have little room for error.  But that could change if their offense performs to expectations.  The Marlins scored 655 runs last season, the third fewest in the National League, and also finished second last with 128 HR and fourth last with a .716 team OPS.  For a team with one of the best outfields in all of baseball (Ozuna, Yelich, Stanton), the speedy Dee Gordon, and useful bats like Martin Prado and Justin Bour, those totals are both shocking and unacceptable.  Injuries had a lot to do with the suppressed run totals, but even moving into the middle of the pack in the NL could translate in a few additional wins that could make all the difference between contender and pretender.

Who Should Win


Who Will Win

Find out in my season prediction column at the end of March

Best Day Ever – The Tenth Annual Fantasy Baseball Autodraft

Fantasy baseball draft cheat sheets?

Throw ’em away.

All your research on position scarcity?

Don’t need it.

Projections, sleepers, busts, and breakout players?

Burn ’em.

If you are a hardcore fantasy baseball fan, stay away.  This is not the draft for you.

But if you are a man who enjoys heavy drinking, chicken wings, disgusting shots, and watching a tiny computer screen automatically select baseball players for your team, then get ready.  Buckle up.

Today brings one of the greatest days on the baseball calendar – the 10th annual PEGS fantasy baseball league auto draft.

What makes this league so unique from others?  Why is this league, the one that I play in each year that requires no draft strategy, my ultimate favourite?  Please, join me in the ultimate guide to the auto draft to find out.

The History

It all started in 2008 when a group of 10 friends decided to set up a fantasy baseball league.  The draft was set for 5 pm on a Wednesday.  Each member of the league planned to stay in the office late in order to draft from work.  Unfortunately, it turned out that the majority of the league was blocked from running Java, meaning they couldn’t access Yahoo’s live draft.

So, instead of drafting, the members of the league convened at a pub and drank multiple pitchers of beer, logged into a laptop, and watched as Yahoo automatically filled our rosters.  The amount of fun, joy, and hilarity that ensued was unexpected, but amazing.

The auto draft was born.

The Draft

From that point on, it was decided that the league would continue each year, and the auto draft would continue as well.  In order to keep the draft standard each year, the following rules were established:

– Only one member of the league is allowed to log in, and only one laptop can be used

– No member of the league is allowed to alter his pre-draft rankings.  Doing so results in his execution (figuratively).

– Every pick must be made by the Yahoo auto draft system.

– The draft must take place at a pub.  Every member of the league must either be there in person, or at least be there in spirit (via text).

– Each member of the league who is at the bar must drink a least three beers, though the commissioner (me) would prefer to see everybody have at least twelve.

The League

Believe it or not, it takes some very shrewd managing to win the league.  Since all teams are essentially random, the GM who makes the best free agent pickups and trades will rise to the top.

In addition, the man who comes in last place faces one of two punishments:

1. He must purchase a round of rye shots for the entire league at the next year’s draft, or

2. He is ruthlessly cut from the league, tarred and feathered and paraded through the streets.

The Penalty Shots

Before the draft the league nominates several players, debates them, and ultimately confirms a final list.  Whenever any of those pre-determined players are drafted, the owner who is stuck with that player must drink a pre-determined shot.  In 2011, there were a total of six penalty shots.  In every year since the number has been expanding.  This year we are up to a minimum of 13.  Meet this year’s penalty shot nominees:

– Yoenis Cespedes

– Yasiel Puig

– Josh Donaldson

– Edwin Encarnacion

– Bryce Harper

– Rick “Just the Tip” Porcello

– Pablo Sandoval

– Josh Hamilton

– Jose Quintana

– Dee Gordon

– Carlos Gomez

– Chris Davis

– Rougned Odor

– Any Asian Player (Darvish, Iwakuma, etc.)

The list of potential shots is endless, but will definitely include Rye, Jack Daniels, Tequila, Captain Morgan, Jagermeister, Goldschlager, Hawaiian Lion, and a Bear Fight (made of an Irish Car Bomb immediately followed by a Jagr bomb, as shown below).  Good luck gents.

bear fight

The Trades

As mentioned, it is important to be active in the trade market to win this league.  Trading, especially at the draft, and especially before the draft is over, is highly encouraged.

Each year at least one trade has been made during the draft.  Generally these trades are completely random, such as a 21st rounder and a 24th rounder for a 22nd  rounder and a 23rd rounder.  Generally these trades turn out to be ill-advised, including a few years back when a meaningless swap of 23rd rounders ended up not being so meaningless when Mike Trout exploded onto the scene.  Or last year, when one member of the league, a die-hard Detroit Tiger fan, unknowingly traded away Miguel Cabrera, and spend the next 90 minutes wiping away tears streaming down his cheeks.  Or the infamous “longest last name” trade, resulting in a Kevin Quackenbush for Edwin Encarnacion swap.  Brilliant.

The Final Words

Today’s draft takes place at Gabby’s on King East in Toronto.  The fun gets going at 6:00.

Who will be this year’s champion and join this exclusive list?

2008 – The Forward Claps

2009 – ionionionionionion

2010 – Bear Fights

2011 – The Five Holers

2012 – Dad’s Magic Wiener

2013 – Pupusa Power

2014 – GOD

2015 – Monumental Dog

2016 – Two Enormous UECs

We’ll find out soon enough.

To all my competitors in the league – get ready.  It’s time.

2017 Division Previews – National League Central

Welcome to part two of 500 Level Fan’s season preview series. Today we focus on the National League Central.

Defending Champion

Chicago Cubs

Past Five Champions

2016 – Chicago

2015 – St. Louis

2014 – St. Louis

2013 – St. Louis

2012 – Cincinnati

Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 97.4

Best Player

Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs

Kris Bryant has now played two complete MLB seasons and has already been named an All-Star twice, won two individual awards, and won the World Series.  In 2016 Bryant became only the fourth player in history to win the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards in back-to-back seasons, joining Cal Ripken Jr. (1982/83), Ryan Howard (2005/06), and Dustin Pedroia (2007/08).  The Cubs 3B/LF improved his already stellar offensive numbers in every category finishing in the top-10 in the NL in WAR (7.7), OBP (.385), SLG (.554), OPS (.939), Runs (121), Hits (176), HR (39), and RBI (102).  What’s scarier for the rest of baseball is that Bryant just turned 25 meaning he probably has yet to reach his prime.  He is the lynchpin of a Cubs team that is positioned to be a force for years to come.

Honourable Mention: Joey Votto, Reds; Anthony Rizzo, Cubs

Best Pitcher

Kyle Hendricks, Chicago Cubs

Though Bryant won the MVP, and Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, and John Lackey were bigger names, an argument can be made that the real hero behind Chicago’s World Series triumph last year was Kyle Hendricks.  The 26-year old righty came into his own in his third big league season, posting a 16-8 record with 170 strikeouts in 190 IP, and leading the league with a 2.13 ERA.  He kept up his dominance in the playoffs, pitching to a 1.42 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in five starts, including a 2-hit, 0-run masterpiece in the NLCS clinching Game 6 vs. the Dodgers.  Hendricks finished 3rd in Cy Young voting and will look to build on his 2016 success as one of a trio of Cubs aces.

Honourable Mention: Jon Lester, Cub; Carlos Martinez, Cardinals

Three Storylines For 2017

1. Beginning of a Dynasty?

It was one of the greatest stories of the sports year: the Chicago Cubs ended 108 years of futility and heartbreak by winning the 2016 World Series.  But instead of simply resting on their laurels and basking in the glory of ending sports longest title drought, Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and co. got straight to work towards winning another title.  Yes, the Cubs lost several significant pieces over the offseason.  Gone are leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler, fireball closer Aroldis Chapman, clubhouse leader David Ross, and pitchers Travis Wood, Trevor Cahill, and Jason Hammel.  But Chicago replaced Chapman with former KC closer Wade Davis, signed former highly rated prospect Jon Jay, and brought in Brett Anderson and Koji Uehara to solidify the bullpen.  Oh, and they also return many of baseball’s best (and youngest) position players in Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Wilson Contreras, Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo, and Jason Heyward, not to mention Lester, Hendricks, and Arrieta in the rotation.  Add to that one of baseball’s best managers, a still loaded farm system, and a ton of resources, and you have the recipe for a potential dynasty.

2. The Saga of Andrew McCutchen 

Entering 2016, Andrew McCutchen was riding four consecutive stellar seasons in which he earned four Silver Slugger awards, four All-Star appearances, a Gold Glove, an NL MVP, three playoff appearances, and a 26.4 WAR.  But things went downhill in a hurry.  McCutchen posted a career worst batting average and OPS, and was awful in the field (-28 DRS), leading to a -0.7 WAR and a disappointing sub-.500 record for the Pirates.  Then came the offseason and the seemingly daily rumours that he would be traded to give top prospect Austin Meadows a chance to play.  Despite all the turmoil, McCutchen begins 2017 as a member of the Pirates, albeit with a new position (LF).  However, all eyes will be on Pittsburgh: a rough start by the Pirates will likely bring a lineup of suitors hoping to acquire the former MVP.

3. MVP Exile

Andrew McCutchen isn’t the only former MVP from the NL Central seemingly poised to be on the move in 2017.  The 2010 and 2011 winners could also find themselves in new uniforms at some point during the season.  The Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers are both undergoing rebuilds/retools and are in the process of compiling young, controllable assets and turning their rosters over.  Cincinnati has already shipped out Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips, Mike Leake, and Aroldis Chapman over the past few years, while Milwaukee has bid adieu to Jonathan Lucroy, Chris Carter, Jeremy Jeffress, and Carlos Gomez.  With neither team expected to contend in 2017 and with prospects seemingly set to take over the starting lineups, it seems odd that Ryan Braun and Joey Votto still remain.  Both men’s names have been involved in trade rumours for more than a year, and with the Brewers and Reds seemingly buried by the still solid Pirates, always competitive Cardinals, and champion Cubs in the division, 2017 seems like the time when those rumours may finally become reality.

Interesting Stat

No teams in baseball stole more bases in 2016 than Milwaukee (181) and Cincinnati (139).  The Brewers’ Jonathan Villar led all of basebal with 62 SB, followed closely by Cincinnati’s Billy Hamilton with 58, and Villar’s teammate Hernan Perez with 34.  But the teams also featured two other speedsters who racked up SB: Milwaukee’s Keon Broxton (23 SB in only 75 games) and Cincinnati’s Jose Peraza (21 SB in 72 games).  No major league team has reached the 200 SB plateau since the 2007 New York Mets.  But with Hamilton, Peraza, Villar, Perez, and Broxton running wild, it’s not inconceivable that two teams top that mark in 2017.

Who Should Win


Who Will Win

Find out in my season prediction column at the end of March

2017 Division Previews – National League West

It’s that time of year again, time for 500 Level Fan to start embarrassing himself with futile, sad, and mind-blowingly awful predictions.  Before we get to my annual predictions, let’s go division by division to get a glimpse of what is in store for baseball fans in 2017.  These preview posts should be seen as a division primer, so we can get to know the best players and teams, along with some interesting storylines, in each.  These won’t have my actual predicted order of finish – just a quick snapshot.  The predictions come later.

We’ll begin today with the NL West.

Defending Champion

Los Angeles Dodgers

Past Five Champions

2016 – Los Angeles

2015 – Los Angeles

2014 – Los Angeles

2013 – Los Angeles

2012 – San Francisco

Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 92.6

Best Player

Nolan Arenado, Colorado Rockies

The 2016 season was only the fourth full year of Arenado’s big league career yet he has already developed into one of baseball’s most elite stars.  For the second year in a row, Arenado reached the 40 HR, 130 RBI, and 350 Total Bases plateaus, topping the National League in HR, and all of baseball in RBI.  He also maintained his title as MLB’s best defensive third baseman, leading all 3B with a +20 Defensive Runs Saved rating, and earning his fourth consecutive Gold Glove award.  Arenado is becoming a perennial MVP candidate and is the key reason why many are pegging the Rockies as sleeper contenders in 2017.

Honourable Mention: Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks, Corey Seager, Dodgers

Best Pitcher

Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers

If last season taught as anything it’s that Kershaw is mortal, as the Dodgers All-Star missed significant time due to injury for the first time in his career.  Unfortunately for the rest of the NL West, it also confirmed one thing: when healthy Kershaw is an untouchable machine.  Limited to 21 starts, Kershaw still put up unworldly numbers: a 12-4 record, 1.69 ERA, 0.73 WHIP, and an incredible 15.64 strikeout to walk ratio.  That last number is not a typo: Kershaw surrendered only 10 unintentional walks in 149 innings.  While the injury robbed him of what was going to be a certain Cy Young win, he still finished in the top-5 in voting for the sixth straight year and led the Dodgers to their fourth straight NL West crown.

Honourable Mention: Madison Bumgarner, Giants; Johnny Cueto, Giants

Three Storylines For 2017

1. World Series or Bust

The LA Dodgers have reached the postseason four years in a row and eight times since the 2004 season, but have yet to reach the World Series since winning it all back in 1988.  If there ever is a year for them to finally get over that hump it might be 2017.  LA has an elite starting rotation after re-signing Rich Hill to slot in after perennial Cy Young candidate Clayton Kershaw, Kenta Maeda, Scott Kazmir, and young sensation Julio Urias.  They broke the bank to bring back closer Kenley Jansen, added former World Series winner Sergio Romo from the Giants, then acquired super-utility infielder Logan Forsythe from Tampa Bay to add to a loaded offense that already boasts Adrian Gonzalez, Yasmani Grandal, Joc Pederson, Yasiel Puig, Justin Turner, and 2016 ROY Corey Seager.  With that kind of roster, anything short of a World Series will be considered a major disappointment.

2. Rockies Revival

With 75 wins, last year’s version of the Colorado Rockies finished below the .500 mark for the 6th consecutive year.  But after years spent seemingly spinning their tires without an identity, the Rockies took several steps forward last year and seem poised to contend, at least for a Wild Card spot.  Hotshot rookie Trevor Story was lighting the league on fire (27 HR in only 97 games) before succumbing to injury, and the team signed Ian Desmond to a huge deal to join Nolan Arenado, Carlos Gonzalez, Charlie Blackmon, and DJ Lemahieu.  And for the first time in forever the Rockies might actually have pitching to get excited about, with Jon Gray, Tyler Anderson, Tyler Chatwood, and former Blue Jay prospect Jeff Hoffman.  The signing of former Royals closer Greg Holland could also prove to be a huge boost to the bullpen.  As currently constructed the Rockies have a surplus of outfielders, but if they can figure out a way to all co-exist, there is nowhere to go but up.

3. Can San Francisco Hang Around?

For the first time since 2008 a team other than the Giants won an even-year World Series, and it’s not hard to figure out why.  San Francisco’s bullpen blew a staggering 30 saves in 2016, so the Giants threw $62-million at former Pirate closer Mark Melancon to fortify the late innings.  The problem, however, is that the rest of the bullpen remains either weak or unproven, meaning there might be an issue bridging the gap between the rotation and Melancon.  But there are more problems: the team is still missing a starting LF, many of its core players are approaching the wrong side of 30 (including Buster Posey, Denard Span, and Hunter Pence) and aside from Bumgarner and Cueto there are question marks in the rotation.  Does this squad as currently constructed have another run left in them or does the decline start now?

Interesting Stat

Clayton Kershaw was utterly dominant in 2016, but the injury that shelved him for 11 starts forever robbed us of a chance to see him make history.  Kershaw walked a total of 11 batters (1 intentional) in 149 IP, for a BB/9 ratio of 0.6644.  That rate would have been good enough for 35th on the all-time single season list, but 3rd all-time in the modern era behind only Carlos Silva (0.4301 in 2005) and Bret Saberhagen (0.6598 in 1994).  But what really made Kershaw special last season was his strikeout totals.  With 172 strikeouts, his K/BB ratio was a staggering 15.64.  MLB’s single season record is currently held by Phil Hughes, who posted an 11.63 mark in 2014.  Kershaw was on pace to obliterate that record but ultimately fell short of the required number of innings pitched.  Can he pick up where he left off and make another run at history in 2017?

Who Should Win

Los Angeles

Who Will Win

Find out in my season prediction column at the end of March.

Looking Back at My Blue Jay Predictions

The season is done, free agency is here, and the Blue Jays are undergoing some wholesale changes.  2017 is sure to have a much different look and feel than 2016.  But before we look forward, let’s take a look back at how well I predicted 2016. (Hint: not good)

  1. Jose Bautista leads the American League in HR.

Actual: Nope.  An injury plagued year limited him to only 22 dingers, tied for 43rd in the AL.

  1. Troy Tulowitzki stays healthy, has a huge year, and finishes in the top-5 of AL MVP voting.

Actual: He stated relatively healthy (131 games), but had an absolutely terrible start, and received zero MVP votes.

  1. Josh Donaldson continues where he left off in 2015, and joins Tulo in the top-5.

Actual: Nailed it.  Another outstanding season for Josh saw him finish 4th in AL MVP balloting.

  1. Marcus Stroman thrives as the “ace”, reaching the 20-win plateau.

Actual: Was held to only 9 wins, after a very up-and-down season.

  1. Both J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada regress from last year, but while the stats are down across the board they still turn in solid seasons.

Actual: Quite the opposite, as both actually improved.  Happ reached the 20 win plateau and Estrada finished with a 3.48 ERA.

  1. For the first time in years, Toronto’s bullpen stays relatively stable.  The club uses fewer than 15 relievers (after using 23 in 2013, 23 in 2014, and 22 in 2015)

Actual: Not even close.  The bullpen was a dumpster fire through much of the first half.  Including relief appearances by three starters (Dickey, Hutchison, and Liriano all came out of the pen at least once each), the Jays actually used 25 relievers in 2016, more than the previous three years.

  1. Jesse Chavez is called on to make 10 starts.

Actual: Nope – zero starts and was gone before the deadline.

  1. Drew Hutchison is called up to make 3 starts.

Actual: Nope.  He made three appearances (one in relief, two starts) and was gone by the deadline.

  1. Kevin Pillar struggles in the leadoff spot and is moved down to the 8/9 slot by the end of April.  He is replaced by Michael Saunders.

Actual: Hey hey – nailed it!  Pillar’s last game as the leadoff hitter came on April 16th, an 0-for-4 appearance that dropped his average to .188 and his OBP to .235.  He was replaced in the leadoff spot on April 17th by….Michael Saunders.  Nice!

  1. Saunders has a very nice bounceback season, finishing with an .800 OPS and 20 HR.

Actual: Two in a row!! Saunders had a huge first half that resulted in his first ever All-Star appearance, and finished the season with 24 HR and.815 OPS.

  1. After being moved down, Pillar thrives on the basepaths, stealing over 20 bases after the All-Star break.

Actual: Nope.  He finished with 14 SB total, 7 each in the first and second halves.

  1. R.A. Dickey throws more than 200 innings for the 6th straight season.

Actual: Not really even close.  Dickey finished with 169.2 IP after being skipped for most of September.

  1. The Blue Jays crush the Orioles, winning 14 of the 19 regular season meetings.

Actual: Close, but not quite.  The Jays won 10 of 19 games vs. Baltimore, good enough to give them home field in the Wild Card game.

  1. Edwin Encarnacion hits a home run into the 500 level….twice.

Actual: A lot of bombs, none that big.

  1. The Jays rip off four winning streaks of at least 6 games each.

Actual: No, just twice.  They won seven straight from July 2 -8 and six straight from October 1 through the ALDS sweep of Texas.

  1. GM Ross Atkins swings a deal for a backup catcher sometime in May.

Actual: No – but he did reacquire Dioner Navarro in August, so kind of close.

  1. Toronto absolutely humiliates the Red Sox by scoring over 20 runs in a June game in Fenway.

Actual: Not even close.  They managed to score 15 runs combined in three June games in Fenway.

  1. Aaron Sanchez struggles in April, but the Jays stick with him and he rebounds with a huge May and June….

Actual: Half right.  He didn’t struggle in April.  In fact, he never really struggled all season long, putting together a huge season for the Jays.

  1. …including throwing the second no-hitter in Blue Jays history.

Actual: But not that huge.

  1. The Blue Jays offense does not get shutout once, all season long.

Actual: Oh boy.  Despite having baseball’s best offense on paper heading into the season, the Jays were shutout eight times during the regular season, then twice more in the five game loss to Cleveland in the ALCS.

  1. Roberto Osuna starts the season as the closer, but Drew Storen finishes the season as the closer.

Actual: Hahahahahaha!!!!!

  1. One of Bautista and Encarnacion signs an extension during the season.

Actual: Sadly, no.

  1.  Ryan Goins starts over 75 games split between 2B and SS.

Actual: Two-thirds right.  Goins made 50 starts during the season.

  1. One member of the team posts a 30-game hitting streak.

Actual: No.

  1. The Jays use a 20-9 September to rally past the Red Sox and successfully defend their AL East title.

Actual: Quite the opposite.  The Jays suffered through am 11-16 September to cough up the division lead to the Red Sox, nearly dropping out of the postseason entirely.


Requiem of a Season

It’s ironic isn’t it?  The way it ended?

A season that began under a storm cloud of change and uncertainty ended exactly the same way as last year.

Think about it.  All winter, all spring, even all summer, rumblings of change were everywhere.  Anthopoulos was gone.  Price was gone.  Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion were facing the end of their contracts, and either might have potentially been moved at the deadline.  There were questions about Aaron Sanchez (starter or reliever? shut him down or let him pitch?), questions about the future of John Gibbons, questions about what Shapiro and Atkins would do to the team’s future.

But despite that constant uncertainty, the Blue Jays season ended with a loss to an AL Central team (Cleveland instead of Kansas City) that they theoretically should have beaten, a team that used suspect starting pitching (Tomlin / Bauer / Merritt instead of Volquez / Ventura / Young)  to shut down their much vaunted offense, and a dominant bullpen (Miller / Allen instead of Davis / Herrera) to keep Toronto a few wins short of the World Series.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Tonight, Game 1 of the World Series will be played without the Toronto Blue Jays for the 23rd consecutive year, and there are still a few more weeks before we have to seriously consider what the future brings.  So let’s reflect on what happened this season.

The 2016 season was a disappointment – it has to be.  Every single season ends in disappointment for the 29 clubs that don’t win the World Series.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t be proud of what took place.

As mentioned, there were so many question marks heading into the year.  Yes, on paper the Jays looked just as strong as last year, poised to be a contender.  But the games aren’t played on paper, and there were very real threats.

First there were questions about Shapiro and Atkins.  They were vilified before they even started, and then proceeded to let David Price walk.  But they delivered with several shrewd moves: the Happ signing, the Grilli and Benoit acquisitions, and the trade for Upton for basically nothing.

The rotation was a major question mark.  Could Stroman stay healthy for a full year?  When would Sanchez be shut down? What, if anything, could they seriously expect out of Happ, Estrada, and Dickey?  The answer was the best ERA in all of baseball.

Then there was the lineup.  Would impending free agency loom heavy over Jose and Edwin?  Would Saunders make an impact?  Could Tulo stay healthy?  The results were up and down to be sure, but through it all Edwin put up MVP level numbers, Bautista struggled but still finished with the 9th best OBP in the American League, and Toronto finished 5th in runs scored.  Not too shabby.

Sure they struggled early, and sure they struggled late, trudging through a horrendous September that forced them into the Wild Card game.  But when it was all said and done, the Toronto Blue Jays made baseball’s version of the Final Four for the second year in a row.  They also provided two of the most memorable moments in franchise history along the way: the Edwin walkoff and the Donaldson Dash.

That is something that everybody – players, coaches, management, and fans – should be proud of.

So as we get set to watch the Indians face the Cubs tonight it’s OK to feel a plethora of emotions.

We can play the what-if game, and think about how the Jays might have fared against Chicago.  We can be jealous of Cleveland.  We can be angry that our team isn’t there.

But as we exit one tumultuous season and brace ourselves to enter another tumultuous winter, it’s also important that we be thankful for what transpired in 2016.

Playoff Magic


It all starts tonight.

For the seventh time in club history, the Toronto Blue Jays will play in the American League Championship Series, this time facing the Cleveland Indians (or the Cleveland Baseball Team if you’re Jerry Howarth (good for him by the way)).

Depending on what time of year you look back on, this ALCS appearance is either fully expected, or completely unexpected.  The Jays entered 2016 with a ton of hope and expectations, stumbled along for a few months, got hot, then nearly bottomed out in September.

But who cares.  They made it, and that’s all that matters.

Toronto is 2 – 4 in franchise history in the ALCS, and have entered prior series in a variety of different manners.

In 1985 they were a 99 win juggernaut but were facing postseason pressure for the first time, so expectations were tempered.

In 1989 they were clearly overmatched by a powerful Oakland A’s club led by Henderson, McGwire, and Canseco.

In 1991, ’92, ’93 there were heavy favourites, a powerhouse team expecting to finally break through.  Twice they did.

Finally, last season they were baseball’s hottest team, riding a huge wave of momentum that started in August and carried right through to the 7th inning of Game 5 against Texas.  But though they were hot, and most of us expected them to beat Kansas City, I don’t think many were surprised when they didn’t.  After all, everybody – the players, management, and fans – were almost delirious after the bat flip, riding an emotional high that fogged over the ALCS.

But now it’s 2016, and things feel different.  There are so many different angles to this ALCS that it’s hard to simply compare the teams and pick a winner.

First, this is a Toronto team that was given up on and left for dead as late as the 8th inning on October 1st, when during a must-win game in Boston Roberto Osuna balked in the game tying run.  But they recovered, won the game in the 9th, and have not lost since.  Everything is hot right now, peaking at the same time.

Second, there is the Edwin and Jose angle.  On September 29th, it looked fairly obvious that each had played his final game in Toronto as a Blue Jay, a disheartening 4-0 loss to the Orioles.  But something happened, and now neither man refuses to believe that.  Something keeps drawing the best out of them, especially at home, something magical that is hoping, or willing, to keep them in Toronto for just a little bit longer.

Third, there is the guts factor.  Last season everything simply fell into place and the Jays rode the wave as far as it would take them.  This year, they have gutted out each and every win, seemingly from Opening Day onward.  You have Donaldson gutting his way through injury to hit .538 in the ALDS.  You have Tulowitzki gutting his way through one of his worst seasons at the plate and leading this team into the playoffs.  You have a starting staff gutting themselves through injury (Estrada), doubt (Stroman), and innings limits (Sanchez), to lead the AL in ERA and then dominate the playoffs.  Then you have Osuna pulling himself from the Wild Card game with a potentially devastating shoulder injury, then returning to gut his way through not one but two multi-inning saves.

John Gibbons called this team battle tested after they clinched their playoff spot that Sunday afternoon in Boston.  I think that is the most accurate term that can be applied.  You didn’t get that feeling from the 2015 team, or the ’85, ’89, or ’91 teams.

This is a team of 25 players who simply refuse to lose.

Cleveland is a good team with a great story.  They have speed, they play good defense, have a great bullpen, get timely hitting, and can pitch.  It should be tight series.  It will be a tough series.

But there is magic in the air in Toronto.  And I don’t think anybody is ready to see it go away yet.

Step One Complete: The Jays Are In

Photo from Associated Press

Let’s be honest: it wasn’t pretty.

At times, it was downright ugly.

But they did it.  The Toronto Blue Jays survived the 162-game marathon and will live to play another game.  Yesterday’s 2-1 win over Boston clinched the first wild card birth in the history of the franchise, and ensured a home game against the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday night.

Obviously it’s great to be back in the playoffs.  There’s no denying that.  But perhaps the best part about making the postseason is that we can wipe the slate clean.  Everything starts all over again tomorrow.  The Cubs are no longer a 103-win juggernaut.  They now have zero wins.  The Giants are no longer a team that scraped and clawed its way into October.  They are now a team on equal footing with nine others.

And most importantly, the Blue Jays are no longer the team that sputtered its way through September with baseball’s worst offense.  They are now a playoff team, a team needing 12 more wins to capture the ultimate prize.

Wiping the slate clean is very meaningful for these Jays, simply because there was a lot of dirt to wipe off.  Consider that Russell Martin posted a .391 OPS in April, and hit just .161 in September.  Consider that Troy Tulowitzki hit .169 in April and was striking out at an alarming rate.  Consider that Jose Bautista spent two separate stints on the disabled list, that Marcus Stroman went through a stretch in which he was one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball, and that Toronto continually sent Drew Storen, Jesse Chavez, and Pat Venditte to the mound to get pummeled by opposing hitters.

Yes, there were ugly times.

This Toronto Blue Jays team played some of the most mind-numbingly awful baseball ever seen at times this year.  They lost 18 games that they were leading in the seventh inning or later.  A lineup stacked with some of baseball’s best hitters scored two runs or fewer 43 times.  There were times when they bunted when they shouldn’t.  There were times when they didn’t bunt when they should.  And of course there was the dismal 11-16, 100 run scored September.

But here’s the thing: they still found a way to make the postseason.

Maybe John Gibbons is right when he said this team might be in better shape for the playoffs than last year’s version.  Last year everything seemed to come easy.  They were able to crush teams seemingly at will.  This year the Blue Jays were forced to grind their way through the schedule, doing anything to push runners across home plate when the bats dried up.  Battle tested.  That’s what Gibbons called his team, and he’s right.

So despite that awful September, Toronto is back where it belongs: one of ten teams that still has the opportunity to win the World Series.

And despite winning only 11 times in September, the Blue Jays are currently undefeated in October.

Let’s hope the streak continues tomorrow night.

A View From the Cheap Seats