As we turn the calendar to March, the mercury on the thermometers begins to rise and we all turn our attention to Major League Baseball.
Hearing the sounds of the game slowly return to our daily routines: a crack of the bat, the popping of a catcher’s mitt as he corrals a 100 mph fastball, a crowd overjoyed by a late-inning rally. It feels good to have baseball back in our lives.
After we get past that annual overwhelming feeling of baseball returning, we have no choice but to dive deep into the major storylines of the upcoming baseball season.
Offseason World Series Champions: Arizona Diamondbacks
Every offseason, it never fails. We have a franchise that blows the lid off of Major League Baseball and tries to make all the major moves in hopes that it will right their respective fledgling franchise toward the promise land.
The first big splash came when Arizona announced the signing of P Zack Greinke.
As many know, Greinke has developed into one of the more dominant starting pitchers in the game. Coming off a three-year stretch with the Los Angeles Dodgers that saw Greinke tally a record of 51-15 with a 2.30 ERA in 92 starts, he was ready to cash in.
Arizona followed suit by handing Greinke a 6-year deal north of $193 million, but they were not done there. A few days later, the Diamondbacks’ front office pulled the trigger on one of the biggest deals we’ve seen in a long time.
Arizona consummated a deal with the Atlanta Braves that sent P Shelby Miller to the Diamondbacks for prospects, including 2015 1st-overall pick Dansby Swanson. Miller comes off a disappointing campaign where he racked up a 6-17 record but he pitched for a very poor Atlanta Braves squad and still did manage to finish with a decent 3.02 ERA.
With this move, it was clear that the Diamondbacks are going all in just in time for the 2016 season.
Arizona now boasts a rotation that is top-heavy but very dominant. A 1-2-3 punch of Zack Greinke, Shelby Miller and Patrick Corbin (6-5, 3.60 ERA in 2015) could certainly swing the power in the NL West.
Arizona’s lineup also looks ready for another big season, anchored by perennial All-Star Paul Goldschmidt. The 1B comes off a season where he posted a career-best .321 average coupled with 33 HRs and 110 RBIs.
Looking at Arizona’s performance last year (79-83, 3rd in NL West), coupled with their additions, it is hard to envision a scenario where Arizona does not improve on their 2015 campaign.
Team most likely to disappoint: Toronto Blue Jays
Just a few months off their first AL East Division title since 1993, the Toronto Blue Jays look to rekindle the magic of the 2015 Major League Baseball season.
The core returns for the Blue Jays this season: Bautista, Encarnacion, Donaldson, Pillar, Martin, Colabello. Don’t forget a full season of a healthy Tulowitzki, knocking on wood, as the wood snaps in half.
Many baseball pundits have been looking for the weakness in Toronto, with most people pointing toward the starting rotation. A full season of a healthy Marcus Stroman should provide a nice little anchor for Toronto, with the loss of David Price leaving a big hole.
Stroman was nearly untouchable in 4 starts last regular season, rocking a 4-0 record with a 1.67 ERA. His dominant form in returning from a knee injury helped propel the Jays to their dominant second half.
Stroman will play a large role but Toronto will likely regress just due to players playing so ridiculously well last campaign. Josh Donaldson hit a career-high 41 home runs last season, will he be able to replicate? Can Troy Tulowitzki stay healthy and play more than 128 games for the first time since 2011? Can Marco Estrada build off his career-best 13 wins in 2015? Can Kevin Pillar rekindle the magic and be a 5.0+ WAR player?
See, a lot of questions for these Toronto Blue Jays and they are more under the microscope than ever because of their phenomenal post-All Star Game run to the AL East crown and playoffs.
Team most likely to rebound from disappointment: Boston Red Sox
Every season, the Boston Red Sox are expected to do big things by every baseball pundit throughout the levels of media. Only one issue with that – the Red Sox have failed to make the playoffs 5 out of the last 6 seasons and averaged only 79 wins per season in the last 4 years. Yes, when the Red Sox made the playoffs (2013) they won the World Series, but that is not the point here.
Boston’s expectations are again through the roof and why not?
The Red Sox made arguably one of the biggest splashes of the offseason, when they signed starting pitcher David Price to a 7 year, $217 million dollar contract. This fills a gigantic hole at the top of Boston’s rotation, left open by the departure of Jon Lester a year ago.
Boston is also expected to be strengthened at the backend of the bullpen with the addition of lights-out closer Craig Kimbrel, who was acquired from the San Diego Padres. New Red Sox GM Mike Hazen and President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski also punctuated the bullpen issues by adding relief pitcher Carson Smith from the Seattle Mariners.
The questions definitely surround this team though, which has some people skeptical that a busy offseason can equal a quick turn-around. Can Hanley Ramirez effectively make the switch to first base? Can Pablo Sandoval rebound from one of the worst seasons of his career, both offensively and defensively? What will Rusney Castillo, with some Major League games under his belt, be able to do in left field? Can Jackie Bradley Jr.’s bat finally come around, like his defense already has?
Some things we expect to see this out of the Red Sox this season are: Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts taking the next step towards superstardom, Craig Kimbrel mowing down hitters in the 9th and David Ortiz taking his next step towards immortality in Cooperstown.
Are we really going to see the Cubs win the whole thing?
After a very impressive 97-65 campaign, that impressed even the smartest of baseball pundits, the Cubs look to move closer to a deep October run. Last season provided a taste for this young, hungry squad which ended with being swept by the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series.
This offseason, Chicago shocked many more when they added top free agent outfielder Jason Heyward from the rival St. Louis Cardinals. The Cubs’ front office would not stop there. Pitcher John Lackey, coming off a 13-10 season with a 2.77 ERA, was also added to the rotation and is certainly expected to add much needed depth for a potential postseason run. The last big addition to the puzzle was utilityman Ben Zobrist, who starred for the World Series Champion Kansas City Royals last season.
These major additions, coupled with another season of growth for franchise cornerstones Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, have fan expectations on the North Side of Chicago set very high.
We have all seen what manager Joe Maddon can do with a large group of young talent from his days in Tampa, but now that Maddon has a solid mix of youth and veterans, the gloves are off.
Ichiro Suzuki, Mr. 3000?
One of the more exciting storylines to follow heading into the 2016 Major League Baseball season is Ichiro Suzuki’s quest for 3,000 hits in Major League Baseball. Why is the emphasis placed on MLB? Glad you asked.
As of the end of the 2015 season, Ichiro has a combined 4,213 career hits. Yes, Japanese League statistics do not count toward MLB’s record book, but Ichiro is 44 hits away from passing Pete Rose for most hits all-time. The reaction to this will be fascinating because we all definitely know how MLB has tried to erase Rose from baseball’s history as time has progressed.
Ichiro, currently a member of the Miami Marlins, sits at 2,935 hits which puts him at 65 hits shy of the much-celebrated mark. When Ichiro records hit 3,000, he will become just the 30th player ever in MLB history to achieve this mark.
We already know that Ichiro is a future Baseball Hall of Famer, but 3,000 hits would confirm him as a lock. Only 2 players with 3,000+ are not currently members of the Baseball Hall of Fame: Pete Rose and Derek Jeter.
So yeah, the march to 3K and Cooperstown for Ichiro continues in April.
Stay tuned to BLTDSports.com for more MLB and MILB coverage throughout the next 6 months!