Happy Opening Day: 7 Questions About the New Season

I am a baseball fan and have written a lot about the game. The winner of the Pennant will be the team  that plays the game in the field best. The following article describes 7 Questions that will be answered in the next six months. Enjoy the game and the season!



7 Questions About 2016 MLB Season

Did Kansas City Change the Game? The Royals lack a true ace, gave a starting pitcher with a 6.10 ERA two dozen starts last season, and fielded a batting lineup thumbed its collective nose at modern hitting metrics. K.C. walked the fewest times in the American League and was near the bottom, along with Cleveland and the White Sox, in homers. Yet the Royals won the World Series against the New York Mets, besting a team of power-pitchers and sluggers.

How did they do it? By shortening the game to six innings with three lights-out relievers, strong defense that relies on team speed, an offense that puts the ball in play—their hitters struck out the fewest times in baseball—and amazing team chemistry. Little of this, especially the chemistry, computes. I mean that literally: The data geeks’ computers predict a losing season for the defending champs in 2016.
Maybe the computers are ineducable.

If Kansas City’s appearance in the 2015 World Series was a fluke, lightning struck twice in the same place: the Royals were in the 2014 Series, too. They’ve won 270 games the last three years. This is eight more games than the Baltimore Orioles, the second winningest team.

“Can you have three seasons of good luck?” asks David Schoenfield, a senior writer with ESPN. Schoenfield says he’s learned his lesson and he’s not picking against them. If the Royals have a strong year again in 2016, that would make four in a row. Maybe that’s what it will take for this scrappy, small-market, small-payroll team to get any respect. Sunday night, in a rematch with the Mets, the Royals picked up where they left off last year, gutting out a 4-3 win with closer Wade Davis on the mound and stranding the tying run on third base.

Is Theo Epstein a Miracle Worker? Even Americans who hear “ERA” and think Equal Rights Amendment—and those who don’t know an RBI from a GPA—know that in 2004, the Boston Red Sox went on an improbable run to win their first series since 1918, breaking the infamous “Curse of the Bambino.”

The architect of that team was Theo Epstein, whose grade point average at Yale (class of ’95) must have been something. He wasn’t even 30 years old when he took the job at Fenway, a mile from where he grew up. Two years later, the Red Sox won it all. The Sawks won it again in 2007, and in 2013, two years after Theo had left to take on an even bigger challenge: renovating the Chicago Cubs.

Talk about a curse! The Cubbies haven’t won it all since 1908.

In other words, no one is alive who saw Cubs hurler Orval Overall beat the Detroit Tigers 2-0 in a complete game shutout to clinch the World Series that year. This year’s version is loaded with players signed, drafted, and inherited by Epstein—and a couple he’s acquired in trades. This stockpile of talent includes pitchers Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, and John Lackey; and position players Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Jason Heyward, and Ben Zobrist. The latter two players were free agents who took less money to play for cerebral and well-liked skipper Joe Maddon. The team Epstein has put together is so stacked that 22-year-old budding star Addison Russell was slated to hit ninth on Opening Day, despite leading the team in hitting during spring training.

If this band can play to their potential—and the Cubs win the Series—Theo could run for mayor, a job considered by Chicagoans even more important than the one held by a certain White Sox fan who’s been living in Washington the last seven years.

Has the “Cardinal Way” Run its Course? “When you play for the Cardinals, you’re handed a torch,” manager Mike Matheny was saying the other day. “And you’ll have to carry that torch. You want to carry that torch. And keep carrying it. Keep up the winning tradition.”

Okay, “the other day” was three years ago, but it could have been almost any year in the last decade and a half. Yes, the Cards struck out 14 times while losing Sunday’s opener to the Pittsburgh Pirates, but this franchise has amassed a record of sustained excellence since the dawn of the new millennium.

In 2015, St. Louis won 22 of its first 29 games on its way to winning 100 games. Despite several Cardinals stars losing significant time to injuries, the team led the major leagues in pitching by a wide margin, while winning its third straight division title with some of its key stars on the shelf.

The Cards are well aware that the trendy pre-season pick is their arch-rivals from Chicago, the team that in addition to signing Heyward, added Lackey, the Cards’ best 2015 starter. The Cards also lost starter Lance Lynn for the year. But they added Mike Leake to the rotation while also getting ace Adam Wainwright back.

If the Cards’ mystique—a sustained commitment to excellence—is to remain intact, it will because the Cardinal Way is to develop homegrown talent, a course they are committed to in 2016. “I don’t think our plan is to fade,” Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. told the local newspaper. “That is not in our mindset.”

Will Yankees-Red Sox Rivalry Be Rekindled? The competition between these two storied franchises was so intense that it finally, of necessity, burned itself out. But if the teams are improved this year—and both seem to be—it won’t take much to jump-start it.

New York and New England fans are ready to do their part. So are the networks: Five of the first 10 Sunday night games on ESPN feature one of these teams—and three of them are Yankees-Red Sox games.

All that’s left is for the players to rise to the occasion. The Human Lighting Rod, a.k.a. Alex Rodriquez, is back. That should help. Also, the Sox signed former Yankees slugger Chris Young in the offseason, reversing a trend of Boston free agents signing for more money with the Yanks. Probably more to the point, Boston plucked pitching ace David Price off the free agent market. That might be what this rivalry needed.

“Once it gets north I think there will be some extra sizzle this year,” A-Rod told a Yankees beat reporter at spring training in Florida. “And [there’s] David Price, one of the game’s best pitchers, so it should be exciting. They feel good about their team; we feel good about our team.”

Will Bryce Harper Repeat his 2015 Heroics? Harper played on a 2015 Nationals team that underachieved so spectacularly it got its manager, all but one of the coaches, and even the nutrition and conditioning staff fired. Harper was voted “most overrated” by his fellow players in a pre-season ESPN poll before, was attacked by the media for what was a harmless quip when the team signed Max Scherzer, and was physically assaulted in the dugout by the team’s closer Jonathan Papelbon as the season wound to a disappointing end.

Yet, with little protection behind him in the lineup, Harper hit .330, with 99 RBI, while leading the league with 42 home runs and 118 runs scored. His on-base percentage and slugging percentage also led the league. Really, he put up Hank Aaron and Ted Williams numbers. Harper not only won the 2015 National League Most Valuable Player award, he was the youngest ever to win it unanimously.

That’s right, in Harper’s fourth major league season he was only 22 years old. Nobody voted him “underrated” this year. If he comes close to duplicating last year’s feats, all of baseball will know what it has: another Mickey Mantle—and a worthy rival to incandescent American League luminary Mike Trout.

Which Team is This Year’s Houston Astros? After years of losing an embarrassing number of games, Houston showed in 2015 the value of stockpiling high draft picks. Knowledgeable baseball people knew the Astros had talent; the surprise was how quickly it developed.

Led by Puerto Rican phenom Carlos Correa, the best hitters in Houston’s lineup are 26 or younger. The top three starters are likely the best trio in the AL. The Astros’ bullpen is not quite Kansas City’s equal, but it’s tough. So Houston is unlikely to be a flash-in-the-pan. But who would surprise in 2016 the way the Astros did in 2015?

Last year, Sports Illustrated gave this mantle to Cleveland, effectively ruining the Indians’ chances, so one wants to tread carefully. The Tampa Bay Rays won 80 games last year, and bolstered this year’s lineup. Florida’s other team, the Miami Marlins, are hiding in the weeds behind the Mets and the Nats. The other Chicago team—the president’s team—is also intriguing. The Minnesota Twins over-performed expectation last year and could do so again. The Seattle Mariners might give the Astros a run: any team with “King” Felix Hernandez on the mound has a chance in postseason play.

Spring training standings don’t do much for baseball purists, but the Arizona Diamondbacks looked like a sleeper, going 24-8 in the Grapefruit League. But the elbow injury suffered by centerfielder A.J. Pollock at the end of spring training doesn’t bode well for the Diamondbacks. This year’s Astros? The safest best is … the Astros.

Isn’t this the Giants’ Year? On paper, the Los Angeles Dodgers are the team to beat in the National League West, even without Zack Greinke, who signed with the aforementioned Diamondbacks. Greinke was lights-out last year while outpitching teammate Clayton Kershaw and somehow not winning the National League’s Cy Young Award.

But why are we even having this conversation? It’s an odd-numbered year, which means the San Francisco Giants—World Series champs in 2010, 2012, and 2014—are poised to win it all.

The Giants’ infield is a loaded with emerging talents such as Brandon Belt, Joe Panik, Brandon Crawford, and Matt Duffy—all playing with Buster Posey, baseball’s best all-around catcher.

In the offseason, San Francisco added two expensive pitchers to supplement ace of aces Madison Bumgarner: The two are Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija. Cueto was last seen earning a championship ring with the Royals. The only way Bumgarner could outdo his 2014 World Series performance would be to hit a walk-off homer in Game 7 of the 2016 Series. Then again, he is one of the best hitting pitchers to come along in years, so why not?

Play Ball!

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