Baseball predictions for 2017: Central

7 March 2017
Matt Rechtien, Sports Editor

National League

The Giants were one of the hottest teams in the first half of last season. They had a 0.633 win percentage in the first half and spent 106 days of the season in first place. The bullpen and injuries to key players like Hunter Pence and Joe Panik helped in their collapse as they managed to secure the finals wild card spot by one game.

The composition of the Giants hasn’t changed drastically from last year, but the acquisition of Mark Melancon in the offseason plus what should be a healthy season from the injured part of the bullpen, there is no reason why the Giants won’t play as well as they did in the first half last season.

Hot on their heels will be the Dodgers because as long as Clayton Kershaw remains a Dodger, Los Angeles will be in contention for a division title. Bringing Rich Hill back — who the Dodgers acquired from the A’s during last season — gives them another strong arm.

Both teams will have the pitching, I’m just counting on the Giants to perform better on offense without their injuries to stay just ahead of the Dodgers this season, though I predict both teams will make the playoffs again this season.

So what about the rest of the division? The west has had a large gap between the top and the bottom for a couple years now. The Rockies, Diamondbacks and Padres have been to the playoffs in the last ten years, but in recent history they have been bottom of the division and the league.

The Rockies will have no problem hitting — their lineup has strong bats up and down and they play in the most hitter-friendly park in the entire sport. Their struggle has always been pitching, but their rotation this year brings a lot of intrigue.

Jon Gray, Tyler Anderson and Jeff Hoffman are all young and have shown promise in their limited time at the big league level, and the other two, Chad Bettis and Tyler Chatwood, focus on ground balls which is almost mandatory to pitch well at Coors Field. As long as the bullpen doesn’t throw games away the Rockies have a chance to be a dark-horse candidate for the Wild Card, but won’t keep up for the division title.

The Diamondbacks could also see their fortunes improve, but will be hard-pressed to make a run for the playoffs this season. And finally, the Padres. They are currently the heavy favorite to take the first pick in the 2018 Amateur Draft.

American League

A Texas team will come out on top again this year, but not the same one that did last year. After a return to Earth after their surprising playoff run in 2015, the Astros missed out last season by five games. This season they should not only make the playoffs, but win their division, in order to make that happen.

The Astros are one of the most recent teams to finally turn their rebuilding franchise into a contender. And like the Royals and Cubs did in the last two years, the Astros are looking to be the next challenger to the World Series.

Their strength relies on their power of their young players, particularly Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa. Bregman came up late last season and was still the Astros eighth best player with almost two wins-above-replacement.

When you add in veteran Jose Altuve (who’s only 26), the top bullpen in 2016, an AL Cy Young winner in Dallas Kuechel — who had an off season last year — and a lineup where every player could hit 20 or more home runs, you have a very strong team that should take advantage of a weakened division to make a playoff run.

The Mariners, Rangers and Angels will all be close to five-hundred, and while I just read Moneyball and really like Oakland, they will finish at the bottom of the division and under five-hundred again.

The Mariners were close to a playoff spot last season but couldn’t keep up down the stretch. A big reason was their ace Felix Hernandez had one of his worst seasons statistically. The Mariners will need him to turn that around this season or else they will struggle to stay at five-hundred.

They don’t have a strong rotation behind the King and will probably have to rely on more than five pitchers for a large part of the season, which will put them out of playoff contention for another year.

The Rangers were the best team in the American League one year ago but will have issues keeping that pace this season. A big reason they had such a good record is that they went 36–11 in one-run games, which is unsustainable.

That record alone inflated their win total for last season. The real question will be whether or not the guys behind Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels will be up to snuff this season.

The Angels have the best baseball player in the world in Mike Trout. It’s kind of a shame that the rest of the supporting cast isn’t doing much to help them get into the playoffs.

Garrett Richards is coming off an alternative to Tommy John Surgery so nobody really knows whether or not he’s going to be the same Cy Young caliber pitcher until late in the season after wear-and-tear have taken effect.

And then there’s Albert. One of the greatest first basemen in the sport, Albert Pujols has not been the same player since he left Saint Louis, and the Angels still have five, expensive years left in his contract that will limit how much they can spend per year on free agents. While they should thrive defensively, unlike football, defense doesn’t win championships.

And the A’s. They don’t spend a lot and their farm isn’t really stack at this point in time. They seem to just be starting down the road to rebuilding at this point and will probably have to wait a couple years before they see the playoffs again.