Didn’t Kris Bryant just throw the ball that raised a million W flags at once? Looks like we’re back at it to find out which teams will eclipse their win total in 2017. Play Ball!

Written by Kyle Magin and Andrew J. Pridgen

AJ,

Until about a month ago, I thought this baseball season was going to be a letdown. Last year culminated in so many gripping endings—good and bad—that I was sure this one would be a rote exercise until maybe the trade deadline.

Let’s take stock:

The Cubs won the 2016 World Series. I still catch a flashback high from the end of their game seven comeback victory over the Cleveland Indians. I said then that it was the greatest game I’ve ever seen, played in the greatest series I’ve ever seen, and I can’t imagine wavering from that point-of-view.

Jose Fernandez—and the magic of the Cubanos—died. Fernandez’s death was a shock to the system. A strapping father-to-be, still at the dawn of his brilliant pitching career, dashed against a jetty in Miami. His fatality was a pitiable punctuation on the era of the Cubano defector. With relations improving between the U.S. and that rotting island to the south, players will no longer have to sneak past commissars and security patrols to play ball here in the States. That’s unquestionably a good thing—no teenager anywhere should have to depend on a rickety raft to find freedom and play a sport. But, it does bring to a close a time when Cubans were the great unknown in baseball. In America, we put teenagers on the cover of Sports Illustrated and check in on prospects like a gardener does his tomatoes; keeping tabs on their ripening almost daily. Having nearly fully-formed big leaguers—Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig, Yuliesky Gurriel and Jose Abreu, to name a few—step into the league was exciting to the point of being revelatory. Now that time is finished, and Cuba becomes another place to mine teenagers over years and years. It takes a bit of anticipation out of the game.

Mike Ilitch died. The longtime Detroit Tigers owner and notable toupee-wearer, Mr. I, died during the offseason. His unsuccessful chase for a World Series ring over the last decade was exhilarating. Just when you thought the aging pizza magnate had found a ceiling in the Tigers’ budget, he’d pull out all the stops and through the sheer force of capitalism, sign Prince Fielder, or Justin Upton, or some other player who instantly made the club better. His fuck it, let’s win now approach may not have been so healthy for the team in the long run, but God it was fun while it lasted.

These endings left a hole I couldn’t imagine 2017 filling, AJ. Baseball just wouldn’t pound pulses without the Billy Goat Curse to gab about, without some new Cubano blasting moonshots, without the old man firing his GM the day after making a trade.

Then I remembered how last year ended, with the Tribe riding Andrew Miller and the Cubs Aroldis Chapman to the promised land. The use of elite relievers in the role of firemen—taking on batters in late-inning situations that aren’t necessarily the ninth—was a lightspeed leap forward for the sport in real-time. Evolution at such a quick pace is exhilarating to watch, and the way other teams copycat the strategy will make for exciting baseball, as will the way offenses learn to deal with this new style of playing.

Stoking my anticipation for this season further was the fact that the World Baseball Classic, formerly a pissant tournament for globalists (#MAGA baby!), showed that the globalists might really be onto something. There is a way to play and watch baseball that is absorbing, physical, and above all, fun. Who really cares about pace of play when a few thousand Dominicanos are banging on a drum and tooting horns? Or when Frankie Lindor is throwing men in California out from New Mexico? There’s a style of baseball the sacrifices none of the intensity the game harbors, but instead, fosters it. Even if it’s a dragon I chase for the next four years, I’ll gladly tune in every day to see if it rears its head. The progression of the game is fascinating to me, and this spring, we may have seen a leap forward in evolution.

So, AJ, I slap my right arm, head out to the mound, and put the ball in your capable hands. After you fan the batters, I’ll come back with my over/unders for season win totals.

Kyle,

It’s tough to get into baseball this season when usually I fall into it like a glass slipper. You danced like Rosie Perez in the opening credits of Do the Right Thing in the face of many of the same issues I have so I won’t repeat them here.

…But I will say this: I have arrived at a place where I think there’s definitely a pre-Cubs-World-Series win and post-Cubs-World-Series win baseball (and frankly, national) demarcation. Like most lifelong fans, baseball is sustenance, my daily bread. Sometimes it’s monotonous and a bit on the dry side, but it keeps me going. No more so than through tough times: My father’s fight with cancer came right in the heart of the Giants’ most recent run and his death came just before pitchers and catchers reported to camp for the season that would become their third and likely last World Series victory of this era. It was in the context of baseball that we framed our relationship. Our last game together was a glorious 10th-inning walk-off inside-the-park home run on a freakishly cloudless May afternoon. It was an “I-was-there” moment for any fan but one with a unique gravitas in light of the day’s events and the ones that would come.

Forever a Giant

So while I always put baseball in the context of relationships (I’ve had bad first dates at great games, been dumped after returning with arms full of food from the concessions and have sat alone among the many, happily keeping score) and I choose my relationships based on baseball — none of my closest friends, to a person, aren’t a bit on the worrisome end of the baseball junkie spectrum; if I do get a ‘hall pass’ weekend, it is always in the context of a game and if I had to chose my last meal, it would be in a ballpark.

But a little bit of that has been carried out to sea toward the Pacific Garbage Patch this year. I wrote (and eventually chose not to publish) a fictitious account of the devil walking into a Wrigleyville bar and promising Cubs fans games six and seven when all hope seemed lost. In exchange, he could install his leader, a mouthpiece of the dark lord so brazen and curdled that their World Series victory and his ensuing strange and sudden rise to power would seem nothing more than a fix. Of course, I wrote this two weeks before the election — and it fucking came true.

This site has always been on the political end of the sports spectrum by design. That’s why it exists. I personally feel that it’s no longer kosher to watch a college football game without knowing everything that goes into it, the pious cliche-spitting coaches, the indentured servant players and their pitiful scholarships to go to a school and not go to school, the short- and long-term damage the sport does to body and brain and what how much a 19-year-old barely out of boyhood body suffers from it.

When people say that’s a buzzkill or harp on the fact that we probably cover, too much and too a fault, the grievous business side of sport both amateur and professional, I tend to disagree. I’d rather know and then make a choice. It’s like drinking beers for me. I know how many the doctor says a man of my age should intake. I know exactly what the difference in me after one beer and the difference in me after three beers and the difference in me after five beers is going to be and the results it’s going to produce. It all doesn’t necessarily stop me from partaking, but it at least makes me think a little about why and whether it’s worth it.

And so, some things have been completely cut out of my sports diet (the NFL for one) and I’ve benefited mightily from it. Others, like baseball, remain. Cue “baseball is constant”

On the other hand, that deal with the devil is totally a thing.

I’ve kind of come to the conclusion that Trump and his surrogates are so inept they ONLY know how to steal. Because there is not even a pretense of trying to govern, it would ordinarily be a presidency of no consequence, because you, me and everyone else has to keep going — if it weren’t for the fact that a) He sets a completely new/dangerous precedent b) He breaks every written/unwritten law with his other elected or appointed bodies either being gutted or caught totally off-guard c) There is a huge chance of some kind of grand-scale military conflict or economic collapse happening.

All of these are terrifying and I’d say probable outcomes that we’ll see maybe within months of the first pitch being thrown.

So, again, all the white people who voted for him or were apathetic or equated Hillary as some kind of similar-but-lesser evil are going to get punched mightily in the mouth and what they know (houses, kids, carpools, vacations…yes, even double-headers) will either be taken away or change mightily.

The very very top percentages should slip through unscathed. Everyone else should prepare for oblivion.

So that’s where I am., Holding on mightily to tradition and preparing for the end of things as I know them. What can I say, nothing is certain …and that’s why they play the games.

Now Kyle, we usually do a long format, but I’m going to pick my top six sleeper teams of the new season and why. It seems appropriate that we break a little within the confines of tradition while still honoring it, no?

AJ,

Breaking with tradition in baseball is absolutely in line with the tradition of baseball. Without it, there would have been no Jackie, no Veeck, no Bird, no Bryce Harper-in-the-show by 19 and all the other innovations that have dressed up a game tagged as America’s most staid.

In the grand tradition of this site, let’s get to the picks. Here’s the outlook for 2016’s playoff lineup plus a few squads I keep my eye on…

Baltimore Orioles OVER 80.5

Aside from the Yankees, the whole AL East took a step back in 2017, and I don’t think the O’s are an exception. But, they still have a lot of pop in that lineup, and Adam Jones showed during the WBC that he may have an elite year under his belt.

Boston Red Sox UNDER 92.5

This club is basically the 2014-2016 LA Dodgers: strong but precariously perched on some bad contracts. David Price has struggled in both performance and health since signing with Boston and may well be on the back end of a brilliant career. Dustin Pedroia grounds into a lot of double plays and Hanley Ramirez won’t have David Ortiz protecting him in the lineup again this year. For every Chris Sale and Mookie Betts, there’s a guy with a question mark.

Chicago Cubs OVER 96.5

A *hopefully* full season of Kyle Schwarber and a *probable* bounce-back from Jason Heyward means this Cubs team will be better than that last one, which won 103 games. While I think St. Louis will be a better team than they were last year, Pittsburgh is stagnating and the Reds and Brewers continue to be free spots on the baseball board game.

Cleveland Indians OVER 93.5

God, the rest of the AL Central save Detroit should be remarkably terrible this season. The Twins actually underperformed a rebuilding year last year, and the White Sox are a wreck. The Indians picked up Edwin Encarnacion, who never gives pitchers a break during an AB. I think he’ll spark a few things in the Tribe lineup that will make it even more fearful in 2017 than it was when they were within an inning of a World Series title last year.

Detroit Tigers OVER 82.5

If you look at it this way, the Tigers have a markedly better team in 2017: Victor Martinez and Daniel Norris are healthy, and Anibal Sanchez and Shane Greene remember how to pitch. If you look at it this way, they’re not: Justin Verlander ages, Miguel Cabrera ages, Ian Kinsler ages, Martinez ages, the pen doesn’t get the ball to K-Rod very well and J.D. Martinez continues to battle injuries all year. I think they’ll have enough success in the division to offset at least a few of those bad things.

LA Dodgers OVER 94.5

The Dodgers rode out their weird, bad-contract period with stunning success. Part of that is due to the fact that they’ll spend past the limits set down by entropy and/or God to hold onto their kids as the olds retire or get traded away, and part due to the fact that they were willing to ride into the playoffs last year with Rich Hill, Julio Urias, and some pitching machines from a Fontana-area Putt Putt. That means that in addition to free agents like Logan Forsythe and Sergio Romo, the Dodgers have been able to keep all their kids, and man, if only Corey Seager and Julio Urias prove up, what a find. Some guy named Kerschman or Scrimshaw is also a good pitcher, I’m told.

New York Mets UNDER 87.5

You try saying Matt Harvey and Steven Matz will pitch a mostly full season and David Wright’s back is nothing to worry about.

San Diego UNDER 66.5

Fun, instructive anecdote: I toured San Diego’s Petco Park last week at the invitation of the club because they thought I might like to buy some season tickets. The sales rep, with a straight face, told me she was excited because the team had just named its ace that day.

Me: Oh yeah? Who is it.

Her: //blank stare.

(Two Google searches later)

I can’t pronounce this. Him.

//shoves phone in front of my face. Screen reads ‘Jhoulys Chacin.’

His first start went… poorly.

San Francisco Giants UNDER 88.5

Two things:

• The Colorado Rockies are not the walk they once were, which will depress the win total; and

• Brandon Crawford is built like a goddamn gorilla. I think he snows a lot of people nationally with his long hair and chill vibe, but I saw that guy at the WBC and I’m pretty sure he could double fist a pair of kegs.

St. Louis Cardinals OVER 84.5

God help the rest of this division. Dexter Fowler was an inspired addition as the leadoff hitter, which moves Matt Carpenter to the middle of the lineup at the same time as he moves pretty much full-time to first base. This is unquestionably good for everybody.

Texas Rangers OVER 85.5

Yu Darvish with a full, healthy season is all this team needs to be the top of the class in the AL Worst.

Toronto Blue Jays UNDER 85.5

No, Canada.

Washington OVER 90.5

The 91-plus wins will be fun. The playoff implosion will be even more fun. Strasburg will sneeze and manage to pull his dorsimus, Bryce Harper will flip a bat into Goose Gossage’s face and get suspended until the second coming, and Matt Wieters will inspire the pitching staff to open revolt when he can’t frame a pitch to save his life. Dusty Baker is there to toss a match on all that gasoline and it’ll look glorious going up in flames.

Is using personal financial ties to lift sanctions or influence policy on behalf of a foreign adversary a crime? Is acting as an accessory to the hacking of a political party’s emails and using them to influence an election a crime? Is being commander-in-chief yet directly being able to draw money from more than 400 businesses, at any time, without disclosing it or having to justify how that affects decision-making a crime? Is a president’s daughter/son-in-law combo taking meetings with foreign heads of state and chief executives while working as senior federal officials and heads of their own personal business enterprises a crime?

Certainly these are legal questions Americans have never had to ponder and, if and when we do get the Trump family out of office, a whole new slew of rules stating EXACTLY what a president and his family can and cannot do are going to have to be codified. Because apparently it is no longer common sense that one does not use the highest office in the land specifically as a tool toward achieving untold personal and familial enrichment.

As a result, from this end, all trust has been spent.

Kyle,

So here we go, a quintet of fliers i’m taking on winning the 2017 World Series. Do I think the Cubs can likely repeat (sure, but I also think global thermonuclear war is a just as distinct a possibility at 19/5.)

Speaking of end times, these bets are also a referendum on how I see certain ball clubs improving in 2017 …in other words, it may be a year too early for some of these squads (like how I liked KC in 2014 and Houston and Chicago in 2015) but the way some teams mature quicker than an 11-year-old girl raised on a steady diet of pasteurized, non-organic vitamin D milk and the Disney channel, some of these teams may be full-blown contenders by the time the leaves turn.

From the top to the bottom.

New York Yankees: 30-1

The odds are likely only this good because they’re the Yankees. What happened last season in the Bronx was a good-old-fashioned mid-market team fire sale. Who would’ve ever thunk the mighty Yankees would follow the purge-and-build-from-within blueprint of the Royals, Indians, Cubs, Astros …and the A’s (?) but here they are and here we are.

As summer turned to fall in the Bronx, Brian Cashman found himself in the unfamiliar position of looking up in the AL East standings and hanging a shingle on his top talent including Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, Carlos Beltran and Ivan Nova, in exchange for a dozen prospects. In winter talks they shed Brian McCann as well which means there haven’t been this many unfamiliar faces around Yankee Stadium since Costanza helped sign the Core Four.

And, you know what? The New York media, not to mention the fan base, couldn’t be more forgiving.

I guess this is the part where I talk about parity in baseball but instead I’ll mention the fact that the Yankees now have several of these top prospects in pinstripes and ready to go. We got a preview during the dog days with Gary Sanchez, a rangy catcher who tore up AL pitching in the late-goings last year and will start this one batting at the top of the order. “We’re in transition,” Brian Cashman said borrowing from Caitlyn Jenner, sorta. “But we’re not waving the white flag while transitioning.”

Which is why the Yankees signed Chapman back to the largest reliever contract in history over the winter, and added Matt Holliday, and Chris Carter in February. Make no mistake, there will be at least a half-dozen first- or second-year fresh faces in the Yankee lineup on any given day but Cashman still has plenty of coin in his reserves should they remain competitive into July.

Pittsburgh Pirates: 65-1

The Pittsburgh Pirates opening day last year were coming off a 98-win season and expectations of going deep into the playoffs were high in the Steel City. But their rotation was immediately shaky and by mid-summer the Bucs had sunk to a couple games below .500. As a result, they traded All Star closer Mark Melancon who would pitch for the Nats down the stretch and find his off-season payday with the Giants. In the addition-by-subtraction category, they dumped Francisco Liriano‘s salary which also cost them a pair of prospects and then parted with two more blue chippers to secure starter Ivan Nova at the deadline.

In the offseason, they resigned David Freese and Nova as well as relievers Daniel Hudson and Felipe Rivero, perhaps the best pair of sleeper pickups all winter. And this spring 2010 top pick Jameson Taillon along with power rightie Tyler Glasnow proved they are ready to crack the starting rotation.

With one of the emerging best rotations and bullpens this side of Wrigleyille in the NL Central, I like the Bucs to contend for a Wild Card…then, we’ll see if the five-time World Series winners can conjure a little We Are Family magic from there. The Cubs, after all, aren’t the only ones with the blueprint.

Arizona Diamondbacks: 125-1

The first of two sleeper NL West picks and by far not the longshot here, if you can believe that. I do think the NL West is nearing a shake-up year as the Dodgers have dominated for the majority of this decade and the Giants have often found themselves in the catbird position of Wild Card spoiler to start a run through the playoffs (remember, in the LDS they were on the verge of taking the Cubs back to Wrigley for a deciding game five with MadBum taking the hill before their bullpen imploded after Boch pulled starter Matt Morris during the gem of his career.)

Everyone’s thinking this is Colorado’s year to breakout (including you Kyle) and with an emerging staff and an exciting quartet of young bats, that may well be the case, but to me the bottom of the division looking to come up starts with your 2001 World Series winners in the Sonoran desert.

The pressure for starters is off the franchise’s biggest ever prize Zack Greinke who had a dismal debut season in Phoenix as did their quartet of young gun starters. The Diamondbacks in 2016 finished 22 games back of the Dodgers and barely ahead of the Padres in a final weekend fight for last. GM Dave Stewart and manager Chip Hale were fired in early October and the Dbacks lured (thanks to tax-friendly Arizona!) Mike Hazen as GM from Boston. Hazen brought all of the Fenway front office with him including assistant GM (Amiel Sawdaye) and manager Torey Lovullo.

But it won’t be overnight magic, Arizona was not only anemic on the field but the farm is in dire need of a rebuild as well which meant the majority of winter was spent luring scouts to the Grand Canyon state as well as purging and signing prospects. This Purge: The Awakening of a Franchise philosophy also trickled up to the opening day roster.

The 2017 Diamondbacks feature almost half new arrivals. Seven of the eleven new faces were signed as free agents with only one trade and one waiver pick up. Even with all the signings, the D-backs payroll still hovers around $100 million thanks to a relatively deep free agent market and some restraint on the part of GMs when it came to signing second-tier talent. Greinke’s deferred contract money (he is delaying $10 million of his $34m salary) helped the Dbacks bring folks like All Star journeyman reliever Fernando Rodney (one-year for $2.75 million guaranteed) on board as relative bargains.

On offense, a healthy A.J. Pollock should help offset the loss of 2016 team MVP Jean Segura, and Arizona will also look to breakout years from Jake Lamb and speedy right fielder Yasmany Tomas …and if all else fails and the bats don’t heat up with the summer temp, there’s always Paul Goldschmidt to pack the stands. If they do grow up a bit on the hill, Arizona could be formidable and vying for that token NL West Wild Card as the guard changes on the sunny coast.

Minnesota Twins 125-1

I’m just happy to see Ryan Vogelsong is getting one last shot to pitch for an emerging contender and revitalize what has been a storied career.

Beyond the Vogey flier, the Twins did a Diamondbacks-like housecleaning in the offseason, with some tweaks. While many of the front office are still in place (including manager Paul Molitor) Derek Falvey, the Twins’ new chief baseball officer, and one of MLB’s golden boy execs, is looking to reverse course on a 59-103 squad. It is notable that last year’s campaign was the franchise’s worst season since 1949, when it was the Washington Senators.

Falvey, whose full title is executive vice president and chief baseball officer, had spent nine years in the front office of the Cleveland Indians, most recently as assistant general manager and is known for his affability, good trade mojo and sixth sense when it comes to pitchers.

The turnaround could be slow. A mid-market team is there is one, the Twins are still a bit hamstrung by Joe Mauer’s contract but he also anchors of the most promising lineups in the AL featuring Miguel Sano (DH), Byron Buxton (CF), Kennys Vargas (DH/OF), Jorge Polanco (IF), Berlin, Germany born Max Kepler (OF) and Eddie Rosario (LF).

Molitor is entering his third season as Twins manager and now that he’s had a couple years to get it going, it’s time to be playing .500 ball. But if Mollie can’t get some mojo working in the Purple City by August, look for him to be looking to move upstairs to round out his contract with a advisory gig and Falvey to start cherry picking the Indians organization for some favored talent.

It’s also important to remember Brian Dozier, the Twinkies coveted second baseman. Look for the NL West (the Dodgers came close to giving up half the live arms on their farm for him in December) to throw a lot of pitching Minnesota way in exchange for the emerging superstar (42 homers last year). Falvey likes pitching. And the Twins certainly need it, no offense to Vogelsong.

San Diego Padres: 500-1

Welp, here it is Kyle, your adopted hometown’s squad at the onset of a deep, deep rebuild; one that erstwhile wunderkind/Rangers assistant GM A.J. Preller stalled out on for a pair of seasons while stocking an anemic team with problem-child All Stars they didn’t need (see: Exhibit A: Matt Kemp.)

As much as Preller has become a popular whipping boy locally who has yet to atone for stiffing Padres season ticket holders (are there any? Apparently you’re a next-gen prospect…) for not giving the Gaslamp Quarter crowd much to root for beyond delicious double IPAs and kimchi tacos, I do like some recent moves starting last season to show he may well have that as-advertised “genius baseball mind” the Padres overpaid for all the way back in 2014.

First off, last season Preller gave All-Star first baseman Wil Myers 83 million reasons to stay in south La Jolla, perhaps the only cogent move from the Cornell grad’s hubris-filled first act with the Friars. Were he to keep anyone as a foundation, Myers is the one. And you gotta have at least one.

Preller has also taken a hybrid Theo Epstein/Ned Colletti approach and absolutely overstuffed the organization with prospects from Cuba and the DR last winter. And why not? Kyle, I know you were a fan of the Latin American fans of the WBC (link) and I hope you took a moment to familiarize yourself with some of the nameplates, because many of them will emerge in Padres brown for the foreseeable future. Plus, let’s face it, San Diego is an ideal spot geographically for a Latin American vibe in the stands.

The owner’s chair Ron Fowler has meted expectations in the offseason with the now-famous “looking to get to .500 in hopefully two years” signal. What it means to Padres fans: Buckle up. We’ve got our guy and he’s gonna gonna run the house like Kevin McCallister for the foreseeable future. It’s baseball’s equivalent of when your buddy who just got dumped by his dream girl decides he’s just going to go on a bender full-stop for the next few years (of course, that’s also the guy who ends up engaged for no reason eight months later.)

In other words, we’ll likely see whether Fowler’s vote of confidence was sincere or just smoke screen by next winter talks. If Preller’s moves don’t show signs of life, he could likely be run and the next GM would reap the spoils of the growing pains. But if the baseball EKG blips a couple beats in PetCo this summer, look for A.J. to be there for the long haul.

In the interim, you’re stuck with who dat journeyman starters Jhoulys Chacin, Clayton Richard, Jered Weaver and Trevor Cahill. Yes, some decent names in there…if it were pre-subprime mortgage meltdown baseball. Throw in Luis Perdomo, who was brought up way too green but still checked in with a respectable 9-10 with a 5.71 ERA last year. If one good thing can be said about the Preller regime thus far it’s that he’s speeding every day players up through the minors faster than you can say “what’s good besides Modern Times?” including catcher Austin Hedges, outfielders Hunter Renfroe and Manuel Margot, and second baseman Carlos Asuaje

Renfroe last year had a quartet of dingers in his first 11 games including the first one ever to hit off the roof of the Western Metal Supply Co. that marks the left field foul pole. Rainbow shots like that are enough to hopefully keep newbie San Diegans like yourself in the seats Kyle. The city is one of the fastest-growing in the country and now they have a team to grow with.

As for 500-1 odds? What can I say? Those are probably the likely odds for them to end up at .500, but it is baseball after all, and miracles are part of it.

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