The World Baseball Classic is in the books, and as players return to their MLB clubs, the focus now turns to making the final preparations for Opening Day. But things don’t always go according to plan once the season begins and, as is always the case, a handful of teams are inevitably going to fall short of expectations. Here are five candidates that could struggle to live up to the hype:
Top MLB Teams Primed to Fall Short of Expectations in 2017
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals franchise has been a model of consistency over the past couple of decades, with 12 postseason appearances, four National League pennants, and two World Series rings in 17 seasons since the turn of the century. The 2016 season was a rare blip on that record, as the Cards hung around in the Wild Card race until game 162, but ultimately lost out to the San Francisco Giants for the NL’s final spot. Still, a handful of red flags suggest that blip could turn into a trend in 2017.
First and foremost, a great deal of uncertainty surrounds the Cards usually reliable rotation. Adam Wainwright, Mike Leake and Jaime Garcia all posted ERAs over 4.60 a season ago, while Michael Wacha’s 5.09 ERA earned him a demotion to the bullpen late in the campaign. A collective bounce back from their starting staff is certainly possible, but perhaps a bigger concern is with the health of their starters.
Lance Lynn will need to put forth a string of quality outings to prove he can still be the same pitcher he was before missing the entirety of 2016 with an elbow injury, and the Cards will be without top prospect Alex Reyes for the season after he recently underwent Tommy John surgery. Wainwright and Wacha are no strangers to the injury bug, either; both have missed considerable time due to a handful of ailments in the past. The moral of the story is that this Cardinals rotation doesn’t exude a whole lot of confidence or stability heading into the season.
In this age of pro sports, rarely do teams experience as much success and for as long as the Cardinals have, putting them in select company with other dominant franchises such as the San Antonio Spurs, Detroit Red Wings, and New England Patriots. However, all good things come to an end, and even long-time powerhouses eventually succumb to the inevitable phase of regression that is present in the cycle of a sports franchise. The Cards have had a great run, and they certainly have a chance to return to their winning ways if their rotation holds up, but there are also decent odds that the decline continues into 2017.
When they acquired Jonathan Lucroy at the 2016 Non-Waiver Trade Deadline, the Rangers were heralded as one of the biggest threats, if not the favorite, to represent the American League in the World Series. That potential didn’t come to fruition in the postseason, as Texas bowed out of the ALDS to the Toronto Blue Jays for the second consecutive year, this time in a three-game sweep. It was a demoralizing way to go out, especially coming on the heels of blowing a two-games-to-none series lead to the Jays back in 2015.
Needless to say, some sort of change was needed this past offseason to freshen the mindset of the ballclub. Instead, President and GM Jon Daniels remained quiet, watching his team subtract and regress. Ian Desmond, Carlos Beltran, and Mitch Moreland all found new homes over the winter, while Carlos Gomez and Adrian Beltre are clearly not capable of producing as effectively as they have in the past. The same can be said for Cole Hamels, who, at 33, is no longer the dominant ace that he once was. Moreover, beyond Hamels and Yu Darvish, the rotation drops off significantly, with Martin Perez, A.J. Griffin, and some combination of Mike Hauschild, Tyson Ross, and Chi Chi Gonzalez or Andrew Cashner (the latter three all likely to start the season on the disabled list) rounding out the starting staff.
Over the past two seasons, the Rangers have feasted on arguably the weakest division in baseball. But the AL West has improved this offseason, with the younger Houston Astros and deeper Seattle Mariners now in position to pose significant threats. The path to another division crown, or even a Wild Card berth, will not be nearly as easy this time around.
After a heart-wrenching home field loss ended their season in the winner-take-all Game 5 of the NLDS, Nationals GM Mike Rizzo made a series of puzzling decisions over the winter. They lost out in the closer market, despite having rumored interest in Mark Melancon, Kenley Jansen, and Aroldis Chapman. They were also reportedly close to a trade with the Chicago White Sox to land Chris Sale, but when that deal fell apart they shipped a pair of elite pitching prospects in Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez to Chicago for Adam Eaton instead. That’s not to take anything away from Eaton, who is an excellent outfielder and solid hitter, but the general sense was that Rizzo overpaid.
The Nationals will still enter 2017 with a competitive roster. Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer will once again form an elite one-two punch, provided they can stay healthy (or, in Scherzer’s case, get healthy). Tanner Roark, Gio Gonzalez, and Joe Ross also give them good depth to make the rotation a definite strength. On the offensive side, the bat of Bryce Harper, supplemented by Eaton, Trea Turner, Daniel Murphy, and Anthony Rendon, should be enough to back their starters on most nights.
On paper, this Nationals team should challenge the New York Mets for the NL East crown or, at the very least, a Wild Card spot. However, just qualifying for the postseason isn’t good enough. The Nats window to contend is now. If there was ever a year to mortgage the future and go all in, this is it. Rizzo had the opportunity to utilize his prospect assets more effectively this offseason and field a team better equipped to go after that elusive World Series ring. Instead, the Nats will spend the final year of Harper’s contract with a good team, but one that doesn’t feel capable of being a true contender.
The Orioles raised eyebrows in 2016, riding their bullpen and power-heavy lineup to a Wild Card berth. Buck Showalter did a masterful job of drawing the utmost value out of his team, which resulted in him being named a deserving finalist for American League Manager of the Year award. Though Showalter has a proven ability to maneuver his way around his team’s holes, it will be incredibly difficult to cover them up for 162 games once again. The O’s received a handful of key starts down the stretch to get them into the postseason, but still enter 2017 with a below average rotation. At the plate, relying on Mark Trumbo to replicate his 2016 AL home run title campaign is a tough ask, to say the least.
The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees both improved over the offseason, and the Toronto Blue Jays will still be competitive. The AL East is once again shaping up to be among the toughest divisions in baseball. Someone is going to have to be the odd team out. Unless Showalter can work his magic and generate results from his club that are significantly greater than the sum of it’s parts, the O’s appear the most at risk of being that team.
Kansas City Royals
The Royals reached back-to-back Fall Classics in 2014 and 2015 with a very specific formula: just enough hitting, stellar defense, and a dominant bullpen. That formula was so effective, in fact, that teams across Major League Baseball have since begun to copy it. While that has worked for the Royals in the past, the question facing them entering this season is whether they still have the personnel to pull it off. After two deep postseason runs and playing a league-high 355 games combined over those two seasons, a down year in 2016 was understandable. But there is reason to believe 2016 was more than just a championship hangover.
With the departures of Wade Davis, Greg Holland and Luke Hochevar, the bullpen is no longer elite and lacks the depth it used to have. Their defense is still very strong, but a number of their bats, including Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar, over-performed in those playoff runs and regressed to the mean last season. Moreover, the free agent signing of Brandon Moss is a step down from Kendrys Morales in the DH spot.
The starting rotation is now average at best after the tragic and saddening loss of young ace Yordano Ventura. The Cleveland Indians have taken over as the team to beat in the AL Central. With a more talented roster across the diamond, they don’t appear inclined to loosen their grip on the division anytime soon. Last season may have been a down year, but a new season doesn’t automatically mean a bounce back to contention in Kansas City.