News Sports Reporter
The rules in this space have always been simple. ¶ Except in rare circumstances, like the Giants’ odd-numbered years, the champion from the previous season starts off at No. 1 in the first edition of our MLB Power Rankings. Some have complained it’s the easy way out of a prediction but it’s not. The power rankings are a snapshot of the season at that moment. They’re not a strict forecast of what will happen. ¶ They’re a quick look, accompanied by a stat or often some requisite snark, at where we stand right now. Sunday is Opening Day. The thought is it’s entirely possible for the Kansas City Royals to be playing as the calendar approaches and even moves past Halloween for the third year in a row. ¶ In a season where the American League should have some wicked competition while almost half the National League wants to do its impression of the 2015 Sabres and Arizona Coyotes, the Royals stand alone atop our list. Lo and behold, who do they face Sunday night in their nationally televised opener as their raise their first World Series banner in 30 years? The Mets, the team they vanquished last November in Citi Field. ¶ Pretty jackpot scheduling by the folks at MLB announced before last season even ended, not knowing they would meet in the Fall Classic. Should make for quite a night. Here’s a look at our Opening Day list:
1. Kansas City Royals. The bats, the speed, the defense, the bullpen, the attitude. The champs have it all, particularly fortified by the hometown discount elite outfielder Alex Gordon took − if you can call $72 million that − to stay put and not go to, say, Boston. The fulcrum of the club, however, is catcher Salvador Perez. Gets it done at the plate and is a leader behind the dish. Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis are almost unhittable out of the pen.
Just because you’re a top team, however, doesn’t mean there are no question marks. Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist left in free agency and this is a team without a real ace. They gave Ian Kennedy, he of the 29-38 record the last three seasons, a five-year, $70-million deal over the winter and he projects to be no better than the No. 3 starter. At least the last two postseasons silenced all the questions about manager Ned Yost’s strategies. Amazing what winning can do.
One thing to look for Sunday night: The New York media has been percolating with rumors in recent days that the Royals are bent on revenge for the headhunting Mets fireballer Noah Syndergaard did with the first pitch of Game Three last October, the delivery that nearly beheaded Alcides Escobar and sent the Citi denizens into an uproar.
2. Washington Nationals. This is year five in contention for the Nats, and one of these years they’re bound to figure it out. Making a trade in the dugout to get Dusty Baker seems like a good idea. Baker has a history of flaming out in the postseason (see ’02 Giants, ’03 Cubs and ’12 Reds) but he wins a ton of games and gets his teams in the postseason a lot.
You could make the case Baker has never had this much talent: MVP Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer. And now he’s added Ben Revere from the Blue Jays and Daniel Murphy from the Mets. Assuming Baker can keep Jonathan Papelbon from choking Harper or anyone else in the dugout, this might finally be the year the Nats get to the World Series.
3. Chicago Cubs. Of course to get to the Fall Classic, Baker might have to match wits with Joe Maddon, and that’s never an easy challenge. Maddon won in Tampa Bay with a lot less talent than this but he has the weight of expectations caused by last year’s trip to the NLCS − and the weight of history. Repeating the long-known numbers: The Cubs have not won a World Series since 1908 and not even appeared in one since 1945, the longest drought in the game.
It’s hard not to love them. Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo are stars while Jake Arrieta is coming off a Cy Young season. And they go add Zobrist, Jason Heyward and John Lackey in the offseason? Wow. The Cubbies will win a lot. It’s just a matter of how many games.
4. Toronto Blue Jays. No one in the Top 10 has as much urgency as the Jays because it looks like last-chance time with Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion both seemingly gone after the season. After exploding following the trade deadline last year, the Jays should be solid right from the start, with a whole year of Troy Tulowitzki and Marcus Stroman in the offing. Led by MVP Josh Donaldson, the lineup is stacked. The rotation looks strong and the bullpen is fortified by the addition of Drew Storen. They’ll battle to overcome the Royals and get to their first World Series since 1993.
5. Houston Astros. Sports Illustrated picked them to win the World Series in 2017 and everyone laughed. After all, they lost 416 games from 2011-2014. Now SI changed its mind and is picking them to win it all this year and no one is laughing. The Astros had the Royals cooked in Game Four of the division series and let it slip away, but their 86-win season and first postseason since the ’05 World Series was a huge learning experience. Suddenly, names like Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, Dallas Keuchel and George Springer have mainstream cachet. The AL West should be theirs.
6. New York Mets. In Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz, they have the best quartet of young arms the game has seen since the ’90s Braves were perennial postseason participants. But you still have an odd feeling about a team that didn’t figure things out until August. They re-signed Yoenis Cespedes but his outfield defense is suspect, aside from his rocket arm, and his production at Citi Field was poor. How will David Wright’s health hold up? How will Neil Walker and Asdrubal Cabrera mix into the offense?
7. Pittsburgh Pirates. What about this year? They’ve hosted the wild card game for three straight seasons and the bet here is they do it for a fourth. But they haven’t taken that next step into an NLCS and it’s about that time for Andrew McCutchen & Co. to get there. Acquiring former Cardinals infielder David Freese and ex-Mets pitcher Jon Niese are interesting depth pickups.
8. San Francisco Giants. Recent history says look out. In 2010, 2012 and 2014, they won the World Series. In 2011, 2013 and 2015, they missed the postseason. Can this be their year again? Absolutely. Especially when you consider they added Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija to the rotation behind Madison Bumgarner. Buster Posey remains an elite catcher but you wonder about the rest of the lineup. They should get a boost from new leadoff man Denard Span.
9. Texas Rangers. They got hot at the end of the season, overtaking the Astros in the AL West, and had a 2-0 lead over the Blue Jays in the division series before dropping three straight. Yu Darvish is slated to return in the second half, which will help a troublesome rotation. They have a rugged lineup, led by Adrian Beltre, Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo. Let’s see what kind of response they make to the Jose Bautista bat flip when they return to Toronto on May 2.
10. St. Louis Cardinals. With Jason Heyward and John Lackey gone to the Cubs and Jhonny Peralta gone for three months due to injury, this may finally be a step-back campaign for a club that’s gone to five straight postesasons. Still, you have to like how they keep developing prospects like Randal Grichuk, Kolten Wong, Stephen Piscotty and Michael Wacha to work around their veteran core. They’ll win 90 games again but that may not be enough in a top-heavy NL race.
11. New York Yankees. How much longer can Joe Girardi keep piecing this club together to stay in the playoff hunt? It’s all about the health of Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira. If they produce big, the Bombers will be in it again. Didi Gregorius showed in the second half he can step out of Derek Jeter’s shadow at shortstop. With question marks in the rotation, the bullpen should be awesome once Aroldis Chapman comes off suspension. Get the game to the seventh and they’ll be good.
12. Cleveland Indians. If they can get to the postseason − and that’s a big if − a rotation featuring power arms like Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer can take them a long way. With left fielder Michael Brantley still down from shoulder surgery, the outfield bats are weak. Once you get past shortstop Francisco Lindor and second baseman Jason Kipnis at the top of the lineup, there’s question mark after question mark.
13. Boston Red Sox. The Big Papi Farewell Tour will carry some heavy emotion but will it help in the standings for a team that’s finished last three of the last four years − but somehow won a World Series in 2013 in the midst of that? David Price is being asked to carry a heavy weight at the top of the rotation. Pablo Sandoval simply is carrying heavy weight on his body. Will Panda and Hanley Ramirez actually produce this year or just, ahem, weigh the lineup down again?
14. Detroit Tigers. It’s very possible last year was a blip on the radar. The Tigers added Justin Upton to a strong lineup and made huge strides in the bulllpen by adding Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Lowe and Justin Wilson. Ex-Bison Daniel Norris (back) starts on the disabled list and needs to contribute at the bottom of the rotation. How much more does Justin Verlander have at the top? Lot of innings on that arm.
15. Arizona Diamondbacks. You spend big money on a free agent like Zack Greinke and you’re all in it to win it. But even with perennial MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt in the middle, this lineup is underwhelming. An if-everything-falls-right entry.
16. Los Angeles Dodgers. It’s been a tough spring for new manager Dave Roberts, the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer. Too many injuries, especially to Andre Ethier and Brett Anderson, have really put a crimp in the plans in the first year minus Greinke. How much of a load can Clayton Kershaw be expected to carry? The final year for Vin Scully won’t end in the postseason.
17. Los Angeles Angels. Why does it seem some of Mike Trout’s early prime career years are going to waste? Albert Pujols has to stay healthy or the lineup is weak. The rotation is uninspiring. But Trout & Co. can glove. The defense will keep them in a lot of games.
18. Minnesota Twins. Some terrific young players in Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano but it’s going to be tough to make inroads to the top of the AL Central. It will be very interesting to see if the power translates for 29-year-old Korean slugger Byung Ho Park in his first year in the big leagues.
19. Tampa Bay Rays. There’s a gnawing feeling the most significant impact they will have on the game this season was their spring trip to Cuba. But it will fun to watch Chris Archer pitch − and then get behind the microphone again for the postseason.
20. Seattle Mariners. They take the mantle from the Blue Jays for the longest streak of seasons out of the postseason at 14. It’s not likely to change this time, no matter how many games Felix Hernandez wins. The middle of the lineup is tough with Kyle Seager, Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz. The rest of the roster is ordinary.
21. Baltimore Orioles. They’re probably going to hit 200-plus home runs, especially since they re-signed Chris Davis. But that is one thin rotation. Yikes.
22. Chicago White Sox. With the additions of Todd Frazier, Austin Jackson and Brett Lawrie to the likes of Jose Abreu, Chris Sale and David Robertson, you thought this was a team that could make a surprise climb. Then they spent large portions of the spring all twisted up over Adam LaRoche’s son. Manager Robin Ventura suddenly seems like a lame duck for Team Turmoil.
23. Miami Marlins. More attention might go to the work of new manager Don Mattingly and new hitting coach Barry Bonds than on the field. If Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez stay healthy, they can surprise.
24. Colorado Rockies. Nolan Arenado has emerged as an elite third baseman. UB product Tom Murphy will be the starting catcher at Triple-A Albuquerque and figures prominently in their 2017 plans, with perhaps a chance at more time in Denver this year.
25. San Diego Padres. A complete mediocrity. There are players with some talent from other places like Jon Jay, Wil Myers, Matt Kemp and James Shields but it doesn’t add up to much of a team.
26. Cincinnati Reds. After trading Aroldis Chapman and Todd Frazier, it’s a wonder they didn’t trade Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce or Joey Votto. Thin lineup, thinner rotation.
27. Milwaukee Brewers. There is Ryan Braun and Jonathan Lucroy and nothing other than the hope the farm system is working.
28. Oakland Athletics. Here’s some 100-loss potential. Sonny Gray and a cast of thousands in the rotation. A thin lineup. They tried to rebuild the bullpen by signing Ryan Madson from Kansas City and former Canisius pitcher John Axford. Not nearly enough.
29. Philadelphia Phillies. Last year’s team went 63-99 and was the first modern era club with no pitchers who had more than six wins. Maybe Aaron Nola can get to 10.
30. Atlanta Braves. The final year of Turner Field is a very tanky one, geared to having things turned around for the move into suburban SunTrust Park next season.