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Around MLB: AL Preview...and a Mets Update

The New York Mets moved into their last week of Grapefruit League play on Friday, losing 2-0 to the Houston Astros at First Data Field in Port St. Lucie, FL. Mets’ ace RHP Noah Syndergaard threw six innings against the Astros in the loss. Thor allowed one run on four hits, struck out five, and did not walk a batter. As was the case last year, Syndergaard’s Achilles Heel was his inability to control the running game. He permitted four stolen bases over the six innings, allowing three stolen bases to Houston OF Derek Fisher; one of Fisher’s steals, in the Houston 5th inning, directly led to the only run Syndergaard surrendered.

Last year, Syndergaard allowed 48 stolen bases to lead MLB – easily. Those 48 steals were 18 more than anyone else in MLB, and 20 more than Cubs’ LHP Jon Lester, who in 2014, went a full season without attempting a pickoff throw. Syndergaard and C Travis d’Arnaud have worked with the Mets’ coaching staff on controlling the running game this spring, varying set times and employing a side step. The early returns are less than encouraging, but ultimately incomplete. On the bright side, Syndergaard has a dominant repertoire, and the Mets’ ace looked ready to go, and he will likely make a short tune-up start next Wednesday, his last start in spring training. Syndergaard is on schedule to take the ball for the Mets at Citi Field on Opening Day, April 3rd, against the Atlanta Braves.

Also on Friday, RHP Seth Lugo, IF/OF T.J. Rivera, and C Rene Rivera returned to Mets camp following Puerto Rico’s World Baseball Classic finals loss to Team USA. Lugo played an impactful role for Team Puerto Rico, winning two games and starting the championship game on Wednesday against the US. Battling with RHPs Robert Gsellman and Zack Wheeler for the fifth spot in the Mets’ rotation, Lugo utilized the WBC as a vehicle to compete for his place on the roster. Lugo started three total games against Venezuela (1) and Team USA (2). In those starts, he struck out 12 batters, walked five, and registered a 4.20 ERA. Gsellman has been outstanding in the spring, and it is a strong possibility that Lugo starts the year out of the New York bullpen, serving a swingman or long reliever. T.J. Rivera still looks a strong candidate to make Manager Terry Collins’ roster in a key bench spot, while Rene Rivera will serve as the backup catcher to Travis d’Arnaud.

With Friday’s loss, the Mets moved to 12-16 on the spring. The Mets will travel to Orlando on Saturday to take on the Braves at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex. RHP Rafael Montero will get the start for New York. Montero has an outside chance to make the team as part of the Mets’ bullpen; he’s likely heading out to AAA Las Vegas to start 2017. RHP Jacob deGrom will stay back in Port St. Lucie on Saturday to start a minor league game.

With only one week left in Spring Training, it’s time to continue where we left off last week and preview the American League in 2017. Let’s swing around the Junior Circuit, in order of their 2016 finish and with their 2016 record in parentheses:

American League East:

Boston Red Sox (93-69). Team President Dave Dombrowski continued to trade assets from Boston’s productive farm system in the offseason, looking to win now with a Winter Meetings deal for former Chicago White Sox ace, LHP Chris Sale. Sale (17-10, 3.34 ERA, 233 K’s in 226.2 IPs) joins 2016 AL Cy Young Winner Rick Porcello (22-4, 3.15 ERA) and LHP David Price (17-9, 3.99 ERA, AL-leading 230 IPs), who will likely start the season on the Disabled List after experience elbow problems in the spring. The Red Sox are loaded with young position players at the major league level, including OFs Mookie Betts (.318, 31 HRs, 113 RBIs, 26 SBs), Jackie Bradley Jr., and Andrew Benintendi. AL Silver Slugger winning-SS Xander Bogaerts (.294, 21 HRs, 89 RBIs, 13 SBs) and veteran 2B Dustin Pedroia anchor the Boston infield. The Red Sox look like they are the AL’s best team on paper – but how will they fare without DH David Ortiz in 2017, both on the field, and off?

Baltimore Orioles (89-73). Every year, we count them out. And, every year, Manager Buck Showalter finds a way to keep them in contention, or get them into the playoffs. Baltimore’s bullpen is excellent, but the starting pitching is weak, and they need a big step forward from RHP Kevin Gausman (3.61 ERA in 30 starts) and a healthy season from RHP Dylan Bundy (8-5, 4.52 ERA in 14 starts; 3.08 ERA in 22 relief appearances), who did take a big step in 2016 by staying healthy. The Orioles play superb defense, and look like a factory softball team with the powerful bodies in their lineup, including 1B Chris Davis (38 HRs), RF/DH Mark Trumbo (AL-leading 47 HRs), and OF/DH Pedro Alvarez. 3B Manny Machado (.294, 37 HRs, 96 RBIs), after California Angels’ OF Mike Trout, is arguably the best player in the game. Showalter dealt with criticism all offseason for not using his all-world closer, LHP Zach Britton (0.54 ERA in 67 IPs, 47 SVs) in the AL Wild Card Game against the Blue Jays. It was fair, but you have to look at the body of work. Showalter is as prepared as they come as a Manager, and he will keep the Orioles in the hunt.

Toronto Blue Jays (89-73). Toronto has advanced to the ALCS two years in a row, losing to the Royals (4-2) in 2015, and to the Indians (4-1) in 2016. Toronto’s roster knows how to play winning baseball, and although 1B Edwin Encarnacion departs for Cleveland, the Jays did bring back a motivated Jose Bautista to play RF. GM Ross Atkins struck early in free agency, signing DH Kendrys Morales (.263, 30 HRs, 93 RBIs) away from the Royals, and he’ll help make up for Encarnacion’s thump. 3B Josh Donaldson, the 2015 AL MVP, anchors the offense; he hit .284 with 37 HRs and 99 RBIs in ’16. The pitching staff is right at the top of the AL, with RHPs Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez (15-2, 3.00 ERA), and Marco Estrada, and help from the portside with LHP J.A. Happ who had the first 20-win season of his career (20-4, 3.18 ERA). The Blue Jays help make the AL East the toughest division in baseball.

New York Yankees (84-78). The youth movement continues in the Bronx, led by C Gary Sanchez (20 HRs in 53 games) who stormed onto the scene last August and September. 1B Greg Bird is back, after being out with a shoulder injury all of 2016. The Yanks have a productive double-play combo in SS Didi Gregorious and SS Starlin Castro, both who hit 20 or more HRs in 2016 and surprisingly hit in the middle of the lineup. New York will be more athletic and score more runs in 2017, but the questions all lie in the starting pitching. After RHP Masahiro Tanaka (14-4, 3.07 ERA, 199.2 IPs) and LHP C.C. Sabathia, there’s enigmatic RHP Michael Pineda and a host of unknowns. The Yankees have played very well in the spring, and it should be fun to watch their young players grow at the major league level. There’s a logjam in some positions (SS, of note) throughout the Yankees stocked farm system, and it will be interesting to watch when GM Brian Cashman will deal some positional talent for young, controllable starting pitching. The Yankees are coming, but are likely a year or two away.

Tampa Bay Rays (68-94). The Rays have the components for a strong starting staff with RHPs Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi (10-6, 3.69 ERA in 33 starts), Alex Cobb, and LHP Blake Snell (6-8, 3.54 ERA in 19 starts as a rookie). 3B Evan Longoria, Mr. Ray, hit a career-high 36 HRs with 98 RBIs, hitting .273 in 160 games, and CF Kevin Kiermaier and SS Matt Duffy are players to watch. Last year, Tampa hit more home runs (4th in the AL), but did not get on base a high clip (.243 team batting average). Unusual for Tampa, they did not play very good defense, either, and they have a number of strange fitting pieces on the roster. Manager Kevin Cash appears outgunned to compete in this stacked division.

American League Central:

Cleveland Indians (94-67). Manager Terry Francona maximized the talent on this roster in 2016, and took it to the brink of Cleveland’s first World Series title since 1948. The Tribe could actually be strong in 2017. RHP Corey Kluber (18-9, 3.14 ERA and 32 starts) is the team’s ace, and he’ll be rejoined by RHPs Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, who were hurt during September and the team’s playoff run. The bullpen is strong with LHP Andrew Miller (4-0, 1.55 ERA in 26 appearance with the Indians), RHP Bryan Shaw, and RHP Cody Allen (32 SVs). 1B/DH Edwin Encarnacion (42 HRs and 127 RBIs with Toronto) joins the team from free agency. SS Francisco Lindor (.301, 15 HRs, 78 RBIs, 19 SBs) and 2B Jason Kipnis (.275, 23 HRs, 82 RBIs, 15 SBs) are the heart and soul of this squad, up the middle. OF Michael Brantley, who was out with a shoulder injury for nearly the entire season, appears healthy and should bolster an improved offense. The Indians look like a good bet to take the AL Central and make a return trip to the postseason.

Detroit Tigers (86-75). This could go one of two ways. With their veteran roster, the Tigers could coalesce behind ace RHP Justin Verlander (16-9, 3.04 ERA in 34 starts) and 1B Miguel Cabrera (.316, 38 HRs, 108 RBIs) and make one more deep run at the World Series championship that eluded them in 2006 (St. Louis) and 2012 (San Francisco), finally securing a title for their late owner, Mike Ilitch, who passed away during the offseason. Or, with injuries to RF J.D. Martinez (foot) and poor play through the spring, the Tigers could fall out of this early, allowing GM Al Avila to tear it down and finally rebuild. Either way, we should know by Memorial Day.

Kansas City Royals (81-81). The other AL team that could go either way. After a great run to the AL Pennant in 2014 and the World Series title in 2015, the Royals and GM Dayton Moore face big roster decisions in the coming offseasons as 1B Eric Hosmer (.266, 25 HRs, 104 RBIs), OF Lorenzo Cain, 3B Mike Moustakas, and SS Alcides Escobar reach free agency. Last fall, the Royals moved closer Wade Davis to the Cubs for young, power-hitting RF Jorge Soler and traded OF Jarrod Dyson (30 SBs) to Seattle for RHP Nathan Karns. If KC gets out of the gates well, Moore will be patient and look for a creative ways to keep the band together; if the Royals struggle, the roster will look much different by August.

Chicago White Sox (78-84). GM Rick Hahn secured a slew of prospects (IF/OF Yoan Moncada and RHP Michael Kopech among them) in offseason deals with the Red Sox and Nationals, so the long awaited rebuild on the South Side is well underway, at long last. There is talent though, with SS Tim Anderson (.283, 9 HRs, 30 RBIs in 99 games) and LHP Carlos Rodon (168 Ks in 165 IPs). There are still key pieces that Hahn can move to accelerate the rebuild, including 3B Todd Frazier (40 HRs and 98 RBIs) and closer, RHP David Robertson (3.47 ERA and 37 SVs). One way or another, the White Sox will impact the AL playoff race.

Minnesota Twins (59-103). After a promising 2015 that saw them stay in Wild Card contention until September, the Twins got off to a bad start and bottomed out in 2016. The Twins have a new President of Baseball Operations and a new GM. We’ll see how it develops, but look for Minnesota to change their scouting and acquisition philosophies, looking for power pitching – and lots of it. OF Byron Buxton took a step forward late last season (.653 Slugging PCT over the last 29 games with 9 HRs), and both he and 3B Miguel Sano (25 HRs), led by 2B Brian Dozier (.268, 42 HRs, 99 RBIs, 18 SBs) will keep the Twins interesting and competitive.

American League West:

Texas Rangers (95-67). Texas has won the AL West the last two seasons, with a resilient group that overcame injuries and adversity. Manager Jeff Bannister will have to do more of the same in 2017. His lineup should be productive, spearheaded by 2B Rougned Odor (33 HRs, .798 OPS), C Jonathan Lucroy, SS Elvis Andrus (.302 and .800 OPS), and young LF Nomar Mazara (20 HRs and 64 RBIs). However, there is some age with 3B Adrian Beltre (32 HRs and 104 RBIs) and question marks, with OF Shin Soo-Choo (.242, 7 HRs, 17 RBIs in 48 games). The starting pitching past LHP Cole Hamels (15-5, 3.32 ERA in 32 starts) and RHP Yu Darvish (7-5, 3.41 ERA in 17 starts) is full of unknowns, but Texas will be in the mix.

Seattle Mariners (86-76). The Mariners made great strides last year and were in the Wild Card hunt until the final days of the season. GM Jerry DiPoto continues to wheel and deal to makeover the roster, and Seattle’s everyday lineup has firepower (223 HRs; 3rd in MLB in ’16) with 2B Robinson Cano (.298, 39 HRs, 103 RBIs), DH Nelson Cruz (.287, 43 HRs, 105 RBIs), and 3B Kyle Seager (.278, 30 HRs, 99 RBIs). The pitching will tell the tale though, as RHP Felix Hernandez (11-8, 3.82 ERA) looks to rebound, RHP Hisashi Iwakuma (16-12, 4.12 ERA in 33 starts) needs to remain healthy, and the M’s need a step forward from LHP James Paxton (6-7, 3.79 ERA in 20 starts). RHP Edwin Diaz (18 SVs, 88 Ks in 51.2 IPs) surprised out of the bullpen last year. The Mariners always seem to disappoint when there are expectations. Can Manager Scott Servais help get the Mariners back to the playoffs for the first time since 2001? It’s the longest playoff drought, believe it or not, in a very competitively balanced MLB.

Houston Astros (84-78). Big players right away during the Hot Stove season, the Astros added veterans to a clubhouse that some described as “Romper Room” in 2016. RF/DH Carlos Beltran (FA; .295, 29 HRs and 93 HRs with NYY/Texas), C Brian McCann (trade with New York) and OF Josh Redick (FA) bring experience and power to a young Houston roster led by SS Carlos Correa (20 HRs and 96 RBIs) and OF George Springer (29 HRs and 116 runs scored). Pitching will be the barometer for the ‘Stros though, as LHP Dallas Keuchel (9-12, 4.55 ERA, 26 starts), RHP Lance McCullers Jr. (6-5, 3.22 ERA in 14 starts), and RHP Collin McHugh (13-10, 4.34 ERA in 33 starts) all need to step forward and rebound from injuries and ineffectiveness if Houston is to truly contend. The Astros have the most talented roster in the AL West, but may have to make a deal for a frontline pitcher to win it.

Los Angeles Angels (74-88). OF Mike Trout (.315, 29 HRs, 100 RBIs, 30 SBs) is the best player in the game, winning his second AL MVP in the last five years. GM Billy Eppler is not going to trade his generational player, but continues to methodically rebuild the roster, valuing defense and athleticism. The pitching staff should be led again by RHP Garrett Richards (1-3, 2.34 ERA in 6 starts), who missed almost all of 2016, but elected to forego Tommy John surgery, opting for rest and other emerging methods (platelet rich plasma injections). RHP Matt Shoemaker (9-13, 3.88 ERA in 27 starts) and LHP Tyler Skaggs (3-4, 4.17 ERA in 10 starts), if they pitch well, could keep this team near .500 and in shouting distance of the playoff race. GM Mike Scioscia enters his 18th year with the Angels; Scioscia who piloted the franchise to its first World Series title in 2002 is under contract through 2018. Eppler, the former Yankee Assistant General Manager, has the Halos on the right track now.

Oakland Athletics (69-93). This team needs a new Stadium, and something good to re-generate optimism. RHP Sonny Gray (5-11, 5.69 ERA in 22 starts) had a miserable 2016 with both injury and ineffectiveness, and he is already on the shelf to start the season. LF/DH Khris Davis (42 HRs) is the best slugger you have not heard about, and the team does have strong young arms with RHP Kendall Graveman (10-11, 4.11 ERA in 31 starts), RHP Jharel Cotton, and LHP Sean Manaea (7-9, 3.86 ERA, 24 starts). Manager Bob Melvin is well respected, but is probably still wondering how he went from the best team in the AL at the 2014 All-Star break, and now, back to the basement. The A’s draft and develop well, and will find a way to stay competitive until their next playoff nucleus emerges.

Next week: intrepid predictions for the 2017 season, and a look at the Mets entering the first week of the regular season!

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