Intriguing Opening Day Games

April 2, 2017, is the date all baseball fans are looking forward to. Opening Day is less than two weeks away and fans and players are gearing up for the start of the season.

It may be hard to forget all of the Spring Training “news” and prepare for the regular season, but don’t worry. Here you will find every game you need to watch to start off the 2017 MLB season on the right foot. So dust off that ball cap and bust out those peanuts because the regular season is about to begin.

Opening Day

Zack Greinke will look to lead the Diamondbacks to the post season in 2017 (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Arizona Diamondbacks vs. San Francisco Giants

The battle for the NL West begins on Sunday, April 2 at 4:10 p.m. (EST). Many aren’t expecting much from the Diamondbacks this season after a disastrous 69-93 record last season.

They will return in 2017 looking to right the ship. The return of a healthy A.J. Pollock and a deep lineup could be something special in Arizona. Zack Greinke should return to form, and the already good pitching staff added Taijuan Walker. The Diamondbacks are slithering into the 2017 season under the radar.

Arizona is probably off the radar due to the San Francisco Giants. The Giants finished second in the division with a 87-75 record before they were ousted by the team of destiny: the Chicago Cubs.

Don’t think the Giants spent much time licking their wounds. They enter the 2017 season with one of the deepest pitching staffs in all of baseball, crowned by Madison Bumgarner. Pair that with a solid offense and the Giants are poised for another playoff run in 2017.

The starters haven’t been announced yet, Greinke and Bumgarner are projected to start. This marquee match up of aces will be energized by the atmosphere of Opening Day. Look for this matchup to be a defining factor in the NL West playoff race late into the season.

Cleveland Indians vs. Texas Rangers

Opening Day

Edwin Encarnacion will bring his power south of the border this season (Charles LeClaire/USA Today Sports).

The Cleveland Indians and Texas Rangers are both projected to be among the elite AL teams in 2017. They both had solid playoff runs, but it’s their offseason moves that help make this a must-watch game.

The Indians wasted no time improving their roster after dropping the World Series to the Chicago Cubs 4-3. The addition of slugger Edwin Encarnacion to an already potent lineup makes Cleveland an offensive juggernaut. Cleveland’s deep pitching staff also makes them a force to be reckoned with. No team is perfect, and the Texas Rangers will have the first crack at trying to expose the weaknesses in the Indian’s roster.

The Texas Rangers finished the season with a 95-67 record and earned the AL West crown. The Rangers needed to improve their club after being swept by the Blue Jays in the postseason.

Pitchers Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross were brought aboard to stabilize the rotation, and fan-favorite Mike Napoli returns to man first base. They are not as flashy as Encarnacion, but they surely boost Texas’ talent level. The Rangers are set to return to the postseason in 2017, and earning an Opening Day victory sure would help.

Cleveland’s Danny Salazar and Texas’ Yu Darvish are projected to square off on on Monday, April 3 at 7 p.m. (EST). A matchup between two of the top teams in the AL is sure to be informative. How will Encarnacion do in the Indian’s stacked line up? Will Mike Napoli be able to recreate his 2016 season? Those questions won’t be answered Opening Day, but we will be given a glimpse of the answers.

Opening Day

Adam Wainwright has been a mainstay atop the Cardinals’ rotation (Jerry Lai/USA Today Sports).

St. Louis Cardinals vs. Chicago Cubs

The Chicago Cubs are in an odd position after completing their Cinderella season and winning the World Series. Instead of being the hunters, they are now the hunted.

The St. Louis Cardinals will have the first chance to knock off the defending champions on Sunday, April 2 at 8:30 p.m. (EST). The Cardinals finished with 86 wins in 2016, but it wasn’t good enough to earn them a playoff spot. They will look to make the postseason in 2017 with the majority of their roster returning. A deep pitching staff and above average offense will define this team.

The Cubs enter 2017 with sky-high expectations. They boast one of the best cores of young talent in the majors with Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber and Javier Baez forming the nucleus of the team. Include veterans like pitcher Jon Lester, outfielder Ben Zobrist and a number of other solid players, and you have the monstrosity that is the Chicago Cubs. They will need every ounce of their talent to repeat their 2016 success due to their tough division.

Lester and St. Louis’ Adam Wainwright are expected to start the game. Both are grizzled veterans and fierce competitors and will give even more of an edge to this rivalry game. Look for both of these teams to battle for the top spot in the division throughout the season.

 

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2017 Fantasy Baseball Left Field Rankings

Crying Tiers of Joy: 2017 Fantasy Baseball Left Field Rankings

I will begin my outfield rankings with one of the more intriguing positions in 2017: left field. This position hasn’t been this deep since the early and mid 2000s when we witnessed Manny Ramirez, Carl Crawford, Matt Holliday and Ryan Braun dominate fantasy as perennial top ten picks.

Many left fielders, young and old, have begun to emerge and make the position much deeper than many people originally anticipated.

The top 30 left fielders have been grouped into five tiers, with the top and bottom player of each tier profiled below.

Honorable mentions include: Alex Gordon (KC), Brandon Drury (ARI), Roman Quinn (PHI), and Matt Holliday (NYY).

Exceptions include: Ian Desmond (COL), who will miss six to eight weeks, approximately 50 games, after undergoing hand surgery, and Yasmany Tomas (ARI), who may start on DL with an oblique injury, and currently no time table for return.  

Tier 1

2017 Fantasy Baseball Left Field Rankings

Kris Bryant headlined a World Series roster for the Cubs (Credit: Michael Zagaris/Getty Images).

  • Kris Bryant (CHC)  

Kris Bryant is the lone man in tier 1 of left fielders in 2017. He exploded onto the scene in 2015 to smash 26 home runs and drive in 99 RBIs. That was good enough to win the NL Rookie of the Year award.

Bryant continued to improve in 2016 with 39 home runs, 121 runs scored and 102 RBIs. That resulted in him winning the NL MVP award.

The 25-year-old is a career .284 hitter and has stolen 21 bases in two years. Bryant will be the first left fielder selected in 2017.

Tier 2

2017 Fantasy Baseball Left Field Rankings

Ryan Braun will look to continue his strong play in 2017. (Jeff Curry, US Presswire).

  • Yoenis Cespedes (NYM)
  • Ryan Braun (MIL)
  • Starling Marte (PIT)
  • Christian Yelich (MIA)

Yoenis Cespedes is once again an elite fantasy option in all formats heading into 2017. The three-time MVP candidate has been on pace for 100 RBIs per 162 games in four of his five MLB seasons.

The 31-year-old, who is batting .277 since 2014, remains an integral producer in the New York Mets lineup and is sure to be a top 25 overall hitter if healthy.

Christian Yelich had his first breakout year in 2016 with career highs of 21 home runs and 98 RBIs. The 25-year-old has a career .293 batting average and is averaging about 19 steals per 162 games.

Yelich is a perennial 20 home run and 20 steal candidate. He could be a menacing 30/30 threat for years to come should he continue to improve. The Marlins three hitter will be selected within the top 50 picks in 2017.

Tier 3

2017 Fantasy Baseball Left Field Rankings

Michael Brantley is poised for a bounce back in 2017. (Courtesy of TLA Worldwide)

  • Gregory Polanco (PIT)
  • Kyle Schwarber (CHC)
  • Justin Upton (DET)
  • Matt Kemp (ATL)
  • Khris Davis (OAK)
  • Michael Brantley (CLE)

Like Yelich, Gregory Polanco was another left fielder who broke out in 2016. The 24-year-old managed to reach career highs in home runs with 22 and RBIs with 86 in only 144 games.

Polanco has averaged 25 steals per 162 games, which shows his five-category potential. The 6-foot-5 230-pounder is also bound to increase his power numbers as he continues to grow into his frame. A 30/30 season isn’t out of the realm for Polanco, which warrants him as a top 60 pick in all formats.

Michael Brantley is arguably the most overlooked player in 2017. He is healthy and ready to bounce back. The 29-year-old has been battling a chronic shoulder injury since the end of 2015. He is now officially ready to go for opening day.

The third-place finisher in the AL MVP in 2014 will rejoin the most talented Cleveland Indians lineup since the late 1990s. With the emergence of Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez, and the addition of Edwin Encarnacion, Michael Brantley should have no problem producing. He is currently being selected as the 140th player on ESPN according to fantasypros.com. I believe he is well worth a top 120 pick.

Tier 4

2017 Fantasy Baseball Left Field Rankings

Andrew Benintendi intends to take home the AL Rookie of the Year in 2017. (Photos via Getty Images)

  • Andrew Benintendi (BOS)
  • Jose Ramirez (CLE)
  • Willson Contreras (CHC)
  • Marcel Ozuna (MIA)
  • Carlos Gomez (TEX)
  • Adam Duval (CIN)
  • Ben Zobrist (CHC)
  • David Dahl (COL)
  • Nomar Mazara (TEX)

My selection for AL Rookie of the Year, Andrew Benintendi, has an uncertain potential. His MLB sample size is a mere 118 plate appearances. The former Golden Spikes award winner is a five-tool player who has batted .313, .312, and .295 in three seasons at five different levels, including the MLB.

The 22-year-old may begin the year at the bottom half of the order. However, he will find his way to the top in no time. Batting ahead or directly behind of Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and Hanley Ramirez will allow him to be an extremely productive player.

He is currently being selected as the 111th player on ESPN, and certainly warrants a pick this early.

Nomar Mazara has seen his draft stock fall as of late. Word of a possible platoon against lefties has concerned owners about his at bat totals in 2017. I’m a full believer in Mazara’s ability to be an everyday player in this league, He has continuously improved his batting average throughout his minor-league career.

The 21-year-old has shown he has the potential to be a .280 hitter with 20 or more home runs over a full season. If an injury or poor performance were to occur to his platoon partner, Mazara could take the everyday spot and run with it.

He is being selected as the 260th player on ESPN, which makes him a sleeper in the majority of leagues. I wouldn’t hesitate selecting him top 200, especially in keeper leagues and dynasty leagues.

Tier 5

2017 Fantasy Baseball Left Field Rankings

Corey Dickerson sheds 25 pounds in the offseason, is this a sign of good things to come? (Courtesy of Wikipedia.com)

  • Corey Dickerson (TB)
  • Jayson Werth (WSH)
  • Eric Thames (MIL)
  • Melky Cabrera (CWS)
  • Jorge Soler (KC)
  • Curtis Granderson (NYM)
  • Michael Saunders (PHI)
  • Rajai Davis (OAK)
  • Brett Gardner (NYY)
  • Jarrod Dyson (SEA)
  • Ender Enciarte (ATL)

People tend to forget about Corey Dickerson’s success in Colorado. He batted .312 and .304 in consecutive seasons. The 27-year-old has dropped 25 pounds in order to obtain the starting left field spot as opposed to being the designated hitter, which is where he spent the majority of his time in 2016.

Either way, Dickerson will be an everyday player for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2017 and is a threat for 30 home runs and solid RBI production. His current ADP on ESPN is 276, which is very low for someone with .300/80/30/80 potential.

Ender Inciarte has quietly been a career .292 hitter while averaging about 24 steals per 162 games. Inciarte will be the leadoff hitter once again for a young but talented Atlanta Braves lineup that commonly goes under the radar.

Although there is a lack of power, it isn’t out of his realm to sport a stat line of .300 100/10/50/20. The 25-year-old is currently being selected as the 196th player on ESPN, putting him just outside the top 50 outfielders, which I believe he is.

 

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2017 Fantasy Baseball Third Base Rankings

Crying Tiers of Joy: 2017 Fantasy Baseball Third Base Rankings

From Eddie Mathews to Ron Santo, from Mike Schmidt to Wade Boggs, from Chipper Jones to Adrian Beltre; the hot corner has remained a staple of power and production for centuries. Third basemen made up ten of the top 50 fantasy hitters in 2016, including the 2015 AL and 2016 NL MVP’s. With so many options to choose from, third base is one of, if not, the deepest position in fantasy baseball.

 

The top 30 third basemen have been grouped into six tiers, with the top and bottom player of each tier profiled below.

Honorable mentions include: Brandon Drury (ARI), Yulieski Gurriel (HOU), Jose Reyes (NYM), Jedd Gyorko (STL), Ryan Schimpf (SD), Hernan Perez (MIL), Matt Duffy (TB), and Johnny Peralta (STL).

 

Tier 1

2017 Fantasy Baseball Third Base Rankings

Can Kris Bryant be the first to win back to back MVP’s since Miguel Cabrera? (Courtesy of Chicagostylesports.com)

1. Kris Bryant CHC

2. Nolan Arenado COL

3. Josh Donaldson TOR

4. Manny Machado BAL

 

The reigning NL MVP, Kris Bryant, should be the first third basemen taken in 2017. Bryant was called up in 2015 after mashing 43 home runs at the AA and AAA levels. The minor-league player of the year impressed immediately in the majors, as he hit 26 home runs and drove in 99 RBI’s, resulting in him winning the Rookie of the Year.

The 24-year-old crushed 39 bombs with over 100 runs and RBI’s, which is easily repeatable for many years to come.

Two main reasons why Bryant lands atop this list is because of his steal upside and the lineup in which he plays in. Bryant is athletic for his 6-foot-5 230-pound stature. He stole 13 bases in 2015, and eight in 2016, which gives him a good floor of steals compared to Arenado, Donaldson, and Machado, who combined for nine.

Also, batting ahead of Anthony Rizzo and other elite hitters in the Chicago Cubs offense will give Bryant a great chance to, once again, lead the league in runs. These two factors will help propel him ahead of the other elite third base options.

 

Manny Machado has all of the potential in the world. After having back to back 35 plus home run and 100 run seasons, he remains in the elite category of third basemen.

Machado has batted primarily third in 2016, and still failed to reach the 100 RBI plateau, which is unnerving, as he is set to primarily bat second in 2017. Don’t get me wrong, Machado still has elite value in the two hole, as he will bat around .300, while being a great source of runs, but if you’re looking for 100 RBI’s, Machado may fall short once again.

Machado also failed to steal a base in 2016, after stealing 20 bags in 2015. This may have been a way to limit the stress on his surgically repaired knee, or may have been due to the fact that the Baltimore Orioles were last in stolen base attempts per game, with .2.

The lack of stolen bases and RBI’s compared to Bryant, Donaldson, and Arenado forces me place Machado at the bottom of tier 1.

 

Tier 2

2017 Fantasy Baseball Third Base Rankings

Will 2017 be a breakout season for veteran Kyle Seager? (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

5. Kyle Seager SEA

6. Jonathon Villar MIL

7. Adrian Beltre TEX

8. Matt Carpenter STL

9. Todd Frazier CWS

10. Evan Longoria TB

11. Anthony Rendon WAS

12. Justin Turner LAD

 

Kyle Seager has been a consistent source of 160 hits, .270 average, and 24 home runs per season, but 2017 will be the year he breaks out.

Seager will bat behind Jean Segura, Robinson Cano, and Nelson Cruz, which will give him a great chance to finally surpass the 100 RBI mark.

The 29-year-old’s isolated power numbers have jumped from .185 to .221, showing that he has the potential to increase his power numbers as he continues through his prime years.

According to fantasypros.com, he is being selected as the 59th player off the board, and the 6th third basemen. Although Seager’s value does warrant a pick at this position, there are many other third basemen that offer similar value at a much lesser cost.

 

Justin Turner exploded onto the scene in 2016, having a career year, batting .275 with 27 home runs, 79 runs, and 90 RBI’s. The 32-year-old inked a 4-year, $64 million deal, that will lock him in as the everyday third basemen and three-hitter of the Los Angeles Dodgers for the near and distant and future.

Turner provides a great floor of value, as he has a career batting average of .282, while managing to have respectable strikeout and walk rates. I believe Turner is more than likely to repeat his power numbers, and could be a sneaky source of 100 RBI’s come 2017.

 

Tier 3

2017 Fantasy Baseball Third Base Rankings

Can Jake Lamb recover from his atrocious second half n 2016? (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)

13. Jake Lamb ARI

14. Maikel Franco PHI

15. Alex Bregman HOU

16. Jose Ramirez CLE

 

Jake Lamb is currently being severally overlooked, as he is being selected as the 19th third basemen, and 165th overall player in drafts.

Lamb finished 2016 with a .249 batting average, 29 home runs, and 91 RBI’s. This stat line may seem underwhelming, but Lambs first half of .291, 20 home runs, and 61 RBI’s suggests that there is elite potential here.

The 26-year-old will join a healthy Arizona Diamondbacks lineup that includes A.J. Pollock, Paul Goldschmidt, and David Peralta, which will give him the opportunity to repeat or surpass his career high RBI total. Lamb will end up on the majority of my teams in 2017, as his ADP is much too low for his potential.

 

The sneaky top 20 MVP candidate in 2016, Jose Ramirez, will be another cheap source of production at third base in 2017. Ramirez is being selected as the 14th third basemen, which I believe is fairly high, although his ADP of 124 gives him significant value.

The 24-year-old will bat in the middle of the Cleveland Indians lineup, and depending on Michael Brantley’s health, may be behind Edwin Encarnacion, Francisco Lindor, and Jason Kipnis, which will give him an incredible opportunity to drive in runs.

Ramirez, a career .275 hitter, is continuously improving, as he batted .312 with 11 home runs, 76 RBI’s, and 22 stolen bases in 2016. Investing in the young Indian will be highly beneficial come 2017.

 

Tier 4

2017 Fantasy Baseball Third Base Rankings

Miguel Sano’s strikeout rate is a red flag heading into 2017. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

17. Miguel Sano MIN

18. Jung-Ho Kang PIT

19. Eduardo Nunez SFG

20. Ryon Healy OAK

21. Yangervis Solarte SD

 

Miguel Sano is currently being selected as the 128th player, and 15th third basemen in 2017. After hitting 18 home runs in 80 games in 2015, Sano increased his totals to 25 in 116 games in 2016. Miguel Sano’s power potential is juicy, although his 2016 strike out rate of 36% is a huge red flag.

Sano’s strikeout rates have continuously increased, which suggests that Sano may strikeout at an obnoxious rate again in 2017. Sano, who has already had a problem finding a position, may experience serious issues if his bat continues to struggle. I believe Sano is being drafted to high, as you can draft safer options in Maikel Franco or Jake Lamb later in drafts.

 

Yangervis Solarte is my sleeper of the year. The 29-year-old is primed for a breakout season, as he will have an everyday role for the first time in his career. He totaled 15 home runs and 71 RBI’s in just 109 games, which would have put him on pace for 22 home runs and 105 RBI’s.

Solarte will be the starting third basemen and cleanup hitter for the San Diego Padres in 2017. This will give him plenty of opportunity for RBI’s and runs, as this young Padres lineup could surprise people.

The ascension of young studs Wil Myers, Hunter Renfroe, and Manny Margot, can immensely improve the Friars underwhelming offense, which will positively impact Solarte’s stats.

His ADP of 319 makes him the 32nd third basemen taken off the board, which means he is currently going undrafted in majority of leagues. Solarte will make an incredible late round pick if you miss early on a third basemen.

 

Tier 5

2017 Fantasy Baseball Third Base Rankings

Nick Castellanos’ fractured hand held him back in 2016, so will he improve in 2017? (Courtesy MLive.com)

22. Nick Castellanos DET

23. Mike Moustakas KAN

24. Adonis Garcia ATL

25. Eugenio Suarez CIN

26. Pablo Sandoval BOS

27. Travis Shaw MIL

28. Martin Prado MIA

29. Danny Valencia SEA

30. Yunel Escobar LAA

 

Nick Castellanos had his 2016 cut short due to a fractured left hand, although in 110 games, he managed to hit 18 home runs, while scoring 54 runs, and driving in 58 RBI’s. The Tigers six-hitter remains a solid source of runs and RBI’s while sporting a respectable career average of .265.

Castellanos is very safe option for later in the draft, and if he continues to progress, could be a top 15 third basemen. His current ADP of 239 makes his the 25th third basemen selected, which would be a price well worth paying.

 

Yunel Escobar has quietly been a solid fantasy producer his entire career, as he has a career batting average of .283, and has batted .314 and .304 in 2015 and 2016 respectively. Escobar hasn’t managed to play over 140 games since 2013, but if he can make that happen in 2017, he will be a great fantasy asset.

The 34-year-old will bat leadoff for the Mike Trout lead Los Angeles Angels. The talent behind him along with his great batting average gives him a chance to be an above average run scorer in 2017.

His ADP of 366 makes him the 37th third basemen being selected, which in my mind is astronomical. He will go undrafted in almost all leagues, although he offers great value in deeper leagues with large rosters.

 

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TGH First Annual MLB Academy Awards

The best from the film industry were celebrated last night in the 89th Academy Awards ceremony. With the MLB’s spring training beginning this past week, we have come up with a way to honor them both. I’m proud to present The Game Haus’ First Annual MLB Academy Awards. The game’s best and brightest will be awarded for their play on the field.

Categories will include: Best Picture (Best Team), Actor in a Leading Role (Best Player), Actor in a Supporting Role (Best Secondary Player) and Director (Best Manager). Without further ado, we begin our award presentation with Best Picture.

Best Picture: Chicago Cubs

MLB Academy Awards

Kris Bryant headlined a World Series roster for the Cubs (Credit: Michael Zagaris/Getty Images).

After a season that saw them win 103 games and the World Series, the Chicago Cubs are hands-down the choice for Best Picture of 2016. The Cubs are certainly not a one-year wonder.

Chicago is loaded with a roster that will allow them to compete for years to come. The offense is fueled by third baseman Kris Bryant and first baseman Anthony Rizzo. Bryant put up a 149 OPS+ with Rizzo’s 146 OPS+. That is exceptional production, but they weren’t the only contributors.

The pitching staff is rock solid for the Cubs, led by starters Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester. Even with a “down year” by Arrieta comparatively to his 2014 and 2015 campaigns, he still pitched exceptionally. He earned 18 wins with his 3.10 ERA and surprisingly, his first All-Star appearance in 2016. Jon Lester also earned an All-Star appearance in 2016, the fourth of his career.

The Cubs are one of the best teams in the league, and are sure to be in the running for this award for years to come.

Actor in a Leading Role: Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

With a career 48.5 WAR at only 25 years old, Angels center fielder Mike Trout is without a doubt the best all around player in the game. His combination of power and speed are some of the best in the bigs. Trout stole 30 bases to go along with 29 homers and 100 RBIs last season. He was one home run from joining the exclusive 30-30 club, one that hasn’t had a new member since, you guessed it, Trout in 2012.

Any player can be an offensive juggernaut. It takes a truly exceptional player to be a game changer both at the plate and in the field.

Trout played 148 games in center field for the Angels in 2016. In his time at center, he posted six defensive runs saved. While that is not a mind-blowing number, it is solid for one of the more difficult positions to play in the field.

Trout is the best player in the major leagues, and it’s really not even close. He is the leader of the Angels, and in his five years in Anaheim he already has the second best WAR of any player in Angels history.

Actor in a Supporting Role: Jason Kipnis, Cleveland Indians

MLB Academy Awards

Jason Kipnis provided a solid season for the Indians in 2016 (Credit: Tony Dejak/AP Photo).

Cleveland shows no signs of regressing from their 2016 World Series appearance after landing Edwin Encarnacion in the offseason. Even with considerable contributions from stars such as Encarnacion, Francisco Lindor, Corey Kluber and Andrew Miller, it will take solid seasons from players across the roster.

Enter Jason Kipnis. Before the emergence of Lindor and Kluber, Kipnis was one of the most reliable offensive producers for the Indians. That didn’t change in 2016.

Kipnis hit the most homers of his career in 2016, slugging 23 long balls to go along with 82 RBIs. He also continued to showcase his speed, stealing a respectable 15 bases last season. His offensive production was impressive, but his four defensive runs saved proves he is an exceptional all-around player.

Kipnis may not be the best player on the Indians, but the support he provides surely does not go unnoticed.

Director: Terry Francona, Cleveland Indians

Sticking with Cleveland, Manager Terry Francona did an excellent job directing the Indians in 2016. He brought the Indians to their first World Series appearance since 1997 and will look to do the same in 2017.

Before Francona came to Cleveland in 2013, the Indians last playoff appearance had come in 2007. He quickly turned that around, guiding the Indians to 92 wins and a Wild Card berth. While they weren’t able to get past the Wild Card round, Francona had much more in store for the Tribe.

Entering his fourth year in Cleveland and only one playoff appearance to show for it, Francona was on the hot seat entering the 2016 season. He used that hot seat to light a fire under his team, guiding them all the way to the 2016 World Series. Even with a loss to the Cubs, Francona was able to stretch the series to seven games.

Some may think that the Cubs’ Joe Maddon is more deserving of this award. However, Francona was able to guide his club to one game away from the World Series title with a less talented roster and much lower expectations. Francona should guide the Indians to another deep playoff run in 2017.

 

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National League Central

2017 National League Preview: National League Central

The National League Central is one of the most top-heavy divisions in the majors. With the World Series champion Chicago Cubs, perennial playoff contenders St. Louis Cardinals, and the ever competitive Pittsburgh Pirates, this division is one of the toughest in the National League. The top team in the National League Central is a no-brainer, but 2-5 are another story all together.

5th: Cincinnati Reds

Projected 2017 Record: 70-92

National League Central

Joey Votto headlines a rebuilding Cincinnati club . (Credit: Al Behrman/ AP Photo).

The Cincinnati Reds seem to be on the tail end of a long rebuild with three straight losing seasons. Reds stalwart Brandon Phillips was traded in the offseason. Accordingly, infielder Jose Peraza will be the Opening Day starter at second base. He will join Scott Schebler, Tucker Barnhart and Billy Hamilton to form a solid young core for the Reds.

Veterans Joey Votto and Adam Duvall will support the offense while the younger players come along. Those two won’t be enough to carry a weak offense and a developing pitching staff.

The Reds will use 2017 as a tryout year and will be putting out lineups that will not be competitive. They say it’s always darkest before the dawn, but the sun should come up soon in Cincinnati.

4th: Milwaukee Brewers

Projected 2017 Record: 75-87

Its been half a decade since the Brewers tasted postseason baseball. Three of the team’s top 12 players by WAR in 2016 are gone, and their roles will need to be filled. Gone are solid relievers Tyler Thornburg and Jeremy Jeffress, as well as catcher Jonathan Lucroy. The Brewers will rely on a mix of veterans and prospects to lead them.

Up the middle, shortstop Orlando Arcia will pair with second baseman Jonathan Villar to form a young infield tandem that should provide a spark at the top of the order. They will rely on Ryan Braun and former KBO star Eric Thames to drive them in.

Veterans Junior Guerra and Matt Garza bookend a young rotation. Zach Davies, Wily Peralta and Jimmy Nelson all need to improve. The offense should be around league average, but the pitching staff will need to make solid improvements to make 2017 anything more than a rebuilding year.

3rd: Pittsburgh Pirates

Projected 2017 Record: 84-78

National League Central

Andrew McCutchen should return to form in 2017 (Credit: Jim Mcisaac, Getty Images).

The Pirates are coming off a dramatic offseason in which they almost traded away their franchise player Andrew McCutchen. He will enter the 2017 season in a new frame of mind and at a new position. He will move from center to right field, accompanying a reshuffle of the outfield.

Even with a realignment in the outfield, it remains the team’s strength. McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco form a robust top of the lineup. Jung Ho Kang and Francisco Cervelli also add to Pittsburgh’s solid offense.

The rotation is filled with former top prospects. Ivan Nova is the only non-home grown starter. Gerrit Cole is the ace, and it remains to be seen if the rest of the rotation can turn its promise into prosperity.

With a solid club all around, the Pirates could finish anywhere in the top two of the National League Central.

2nd: St. Louis Cardinals

Projected 2017 Record: 87-75

After two World Series appearances in the previous five seasons, the Cardinals failed to qualify for the postseason in 2016. This year’s team is full of talent and NL All-Stars all over the diamond.

On the mound, 25-year-old Carlos Martinez will lead the rotation. He will be backed by Mike Leake, Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha and veteran Adam Wainwright. All five have at least one NL-All Star appearance.

Nevertheless, the talent isn’t limited to just the mound. Matt Carpenter headlines the lineup. The addition of Dexter Fowler provides speed St. Louis has been lacking. He will be joined by outfielders Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty to give the Cardinals an excellent outfield trio. Stalwart catcher Yadier Molina will be behind the plate for his 14th season in St. Louis.

A deep pitching staff is the strength of the Cardinals, but their offense is not far behind. They will compete for one of the two National League Wild Cards in 2017.

1st: Chicago Cubs

Projected 2017 Record: 105-57

National League Central

Kris Bryant and the Cubs should easily win the National League Central (Credit: Michael Zagaris/Getty Images).

Coming off a dramatic World Series victory, the Cubs are the de facto favorite in the National League Central, if not a favorite to repeat as World Series Champions. It’s easy to see why.

Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester sit atop of a solid rotation. Young starters Kyle Hendricks and Mike Montgomery will be joined by grizzled veteran John Lackey to round it out. The talent on the mound is good, but it’s what’s off the mound that has Cubs fans drooling.

Former top prospects Addison Russell and Javier Baez form one of the elite shortstop-second base tandems in the National League. In the corners of the infield, first baseman Anthony Rizzo and third baseman Kris Bryant are some of the top producers at their respective positions.

Supported by super utility man Ben Zobrist and right fielder Jason Heyward, the Cubs are stacked in the field. That doesn’t even include uber-prospect catcher Willson Contreras, who will play his first full season in the majors in 2017.

Chicago Cubs fans have plenty to be excited about in 2017, as a repeat title is well within reach.

 

 

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2017 MLB Season

Position Rankings for 2017 MLB Season: Third Basemen

The sixth installment of our position rankings lands us at the 2017 third basemen rankings. Third base is one of the most top-heavy positions in all of baseball. With steady veterans and young studs all around the league, let’s start our list with number five.

5. Adrian Beltre- Texas Rangers

Like a fine wine, Beltre just seems to get better with age. By the way Beltre has been playing, you wouldn’t know he’s entering his 20th season in the majors. He bested his career averages in 2016 batting (.300/.358/.521.) And while he didn’t earn an All-Star selection in 2016, Beltre was still able to finish seventh in the AL MVP voting by hitting 32 home runs with 104 RBIs. But it wasn’t just his offense that vaulted him into the MVP conversation.

Beltre’s defense has been spectacular throughout his time in Texas, and it continued in 2016. He posted 15 defensive runs saved and was a wizard with the glove down at third base. That fancy glove work and powerful offensive production makes Beltre a solid pick to make the top five. Although he will be entering 2017 in his late 30’s, don’t expect Father Time to catch up with him anytime soon.

4. Manny Machado- Baltimore Orioles

2017 Third Basemen Rankings

Many Machado will try to carry the Orioles to the playoffs in 2017. (Rob Carr, Getty Images).

At 24 years old and entering his fifth season in the majors, Manny Machado will be a mainstay on this list for years to come. Machado really came into his own in 2016, putting up career highs in batting average (.294), slugging (.533) and posting a OBP of .343. Machado was also able to continue to utilize his power in 2016, mashing 37 homers and driving in 96 RBIs.

Like Beltre, Machado was also in the 2016 AL MVP conversation, finishing fifth. Machado also proved to be pretty steady with the glove as well.

Coming up as a shortstop with the Baltimore Orioles, Machado has always been a great fielder. He has been able to utilize his defensive skills at the hot corner, posting 13 defensive runs saved in 2016.

Machado has found his power, and coupled that with an excellent ability to make contact, good batting eye, and stellar defense to up his game even more in 2016. The 2017 season should prove no different for Machado.

3. Josh Donaldson- Toronto Blue Jays

While Josh Donaldson was a great player in 2013 and 2014 with Oakland, he blossomed into a legit MVP player when he was shipped north of the border in 2015. He continued his offensive onslaught in the 2016 season, slashing .284, .404, .549 and launched 37 homers to go along with 99 RBIs.

While Donaldson did have a drop off from his 2015 MVP season to his 2016 season, it is extremely hard to improve on an MVP season. Donaldson also experienced a sight drop off in his defense as well in 2016.

Donaldson had 2 defensive runs saved in 2016, not spectacular, but solid nonetheless. As Donaldson enters the 2017 season, he will look to continue what he accomplished in 2015 and 2016. His glove and his bat are one of the best in all of the majors, and Donaldson has a chance to prove it in 2017.

2017 Third Basemen Rankings

Nolan Arenado has launched 80 plus homers in the past two seasons. (Ben Margot, AP Photo).

2. Nolan Arenado- Colorado Rockies

After two seasons of 40 plus homers, Nolan Arenado has officially cemented himself as one of the best players in the league. He put up a slash line of .294, .362, .570, career bests in average and OBP in 2016. He also earned an NL All-Star appearance, Gold Glove award and Silver Slugger award for the second year in a row.

Arenado has produced at a ridiculous rate in the past two seasons, hitting 83 homers to go along with 263 RBIs. He has certainly found his swing at the plate, but he has always had a stellar glove.

Arenado has been a Gold Glover for his entire major league career, earning the award each season he has been in the majors. And 2016 was no different. He had 20 defensive runs saved in 2016, an amazing number for a third baseman. He is without a doubt one of the best overall defenders in all of baseball, and 2017 will be no different. If Arenado can continue his torrid offensive pace and spectacular defense, he will be a perennial MVP candidate.

1. Kris Bryant- Chicago Cubs

With just two seasons in the majors under his belt, Kris Bryant has done things that many thought would never be done. He helped bring the Cubs a World Series title in 2016 and won the NL MVP in 2016 after winning the NL ROY award in 2015.

Bryant has put up monster numbers since being called up in 2015, batting .284, .377, .522 as well as blasting 65 bombs to go along with 201 RBIs in his career. He has also stole 21 bases in his time in Chicago, exceptional for a slugger like Bryant.

Bryant has also made his name with the glove. Coming up as a third baseman with the Cubs, Bryant was always a solid fielder. But his defensive prowess has grown since being called up to Chicago. He posted 4 defensive runs saved at third base in 2016, providing a solid glove at the hot corner.

But Bryant has also proven to be a solid defender all over the field. Logging time at third, the outfield and first base in 2016, Bryant has become one of the game’s most versatile player. Bryant is a once in a generation talent, and is just beginning his young career.

It is a golden age for third basemen, with multiple young players performing at a high level. From Gold Glovers to Silver Sluggers, the major league landscape is dotted with players who are set to put up monster numbers in 2017.

 

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How Rob Manfred Can Build on the Game 7 Hype

Game 7 of the World Series between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians was the most viewed game in the past twenty-five years. The storyline was too good to be true for Rob Manfred, the commissioner of the MLB. The big market Cubs and the beloved Indians were facing the longest World Series droughts in the MLB. Either way, one team was going to break their curse. It was the series that everybody was talking about as the series was unorthodox, but still emotionally gripping. In the end, it was the Cubs that survived victorious.

The hype surrounding the game had even the most casual of sports fans watching. Baseball is a sport often seen as stagnating with the young audience. One of Rob Manfred’s biggest issues is how to help grow a sport often seen as stale and slow. Often referred to as America’s pastime, the game truly does not feel like it has done everything it can to keep up with modern times to help reach an audience that will need to be captivated in order for baseball to flourish over the next couple of decades. This article will provide just a couple things that could be done to help modernize the game.

First off, it is hard for millennials to watch their favorite team play without having to go to a bar. The MLB has been making strides to make the games more accessible for cord-cutters, but truthfully, their efforts have not been enough. MLB.TV was a good first step to providing the entertainment, as $85 to have the ability to watch all or your team’s 162 games is a bargain. Local blackouts, however, hinder the fans who are in their team’s regional TV coverage. For example, if a fan of Cincinnati, Cleveland, or Pittsburgh lives in Columbus, Ohio, they would not be able to watch their team play on MLB.TV due to these blackout rules unless they had a cable subscription (defeating the purpose of buying MLB.TV).

 

 

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Above is the blackout map for each state. Poor Iowans have up to six teams in their blackout zone, hurting cord cutters in the state. Photo courtesy of wikimedia.

Now, the reason why these blackout rules exist is because cable companies know the only chance to survive the cord cutting trend is to save their sports channels. Of course, their are ways to circumvent the blackout rules through shady means, but truthfully, the casual viewer does not want to go to that length just to watch their local team.  Team owners, Manfred, and cable companies need to come to some agreement to avoid these blackouts. Sadly, this may never be the case, as baseball owners make a ton of money off all these regional sports channel agreements . Oftentimes, these agreements make up a significant portion of the money used to fund the roster of many small market teams. If Manfred is serious about making baseball more appealing to the millennials, he needs to find a way to make baseball more accessible to the fans. He also needs to find a way for an individual to stream their local team.

The second step revolves around a debate that has been surrounding baseball for years now. On one side of the aisle is the viewpoint of baseball as a gentleman’s game, where celebrations are mild and respect is shown by a player to the opposing team. More recently, however, has been a slowly growing movement of players that are not afraid to step out of that zone and celebrate a big hit. Jose Bautista may have received the most venom for his 2015 ALCS Game 6 bat flip, but it is moments like that that resonate with the young fans. Obviously there should be limits to the celebration. I’m not talking about letting a man break dance on home plate after hitting a monster home run, but let the hitter slowly walk out of the box as he hits his moonshot. Maybe, just maybe, let the hitter flip his bat back to his dugout in excitement without being afraid of getting belted by a fastball his next time up to bat.

MLB: Spring Training-Oakland Athletics at Los Angeles Dodgers

Jose Bautista is not the only player with a legitimate bat flip. Yasiel Puig, often mired in controversy, has been flipping bats after home runs ever since he started in the majors. Photo courtesy of cbssports.com

It does not stop with the hitters. Pitchers have their fair share of celebrating already. Fist bumps are very common among relievers and closers who pitch out of a jam. The issue is that pitchers normally go unpunished for celebrating, unlike the hitters who may have to go up later in the game and get hit on purpose for celebrating a little too much. Baseball should be promoting these moments of personality, not letting hitters get crushed by both opposing pitchers and media pundits that are stuck in the “old ways” of baseball. Baseball needs personality out on the field, not robots.

Last, but not least, surrounds the World Baseball Classic. The hype machine needs to start today on getting America prepared for it. A rather new tradition, the WBC is the World Cup of Baseball, which is played every four years. Players should be honored to represent their teams, especially as the sport is strong in not just America, but Asia and the Caribbean as well. Most importantly, however, is that baseball needs the best Americans representing the United States. Manfred then needs to get the WBC accessible to all kinds of fans and not try to make people watch the games on FS1 or other weird channels very few people actually utilize.

The last WBC Team USA squad in 2013 definitely had some recognizable names, featuring a young Giancarlo Stanton, prime Ryan Braun and Adam Jones, and Captain America himself, David Wright. Frankly, the rest of the roster was full of players adored in their personal market and team fandom, but often unrecognized on the bigger stages. Think of an infield of Buster Posey, Paul Goldschmidt, Jose Altuve, Manny Machado, and Kris Bryant. Now couple that infield with an outfield of Giancarlo Stanton, Mike Trout, and Bryce Harper. Not only does that give you one of the best teams truly ever assembled in baseball (better than most fan voted all-star teams even), but also gives plenty of young personalities from many different markets all across the US that can get each area to rally around the team.

The downside of the WBC has always been the fear of overuse on the players before the season starts. An understandable fear, and one faced by many sports who have the same international competition. Injuries are avoided as much as possible, but they are also natural and going to occur regardless of players participating in this tournament, or in just regular spring training. Have MLB promote this as truly a world tournament and get people interested, even if it is 1/10th as popular as the FIFA World Cup, and that momentum could carry over into the regular season.

In the end, baseball is such a different sport for viewers than many of the other popular sports. Football, Hockey, and Basketball are all fast paced and timed. Baseball is both untimed and slower moving, with each pitch taking as long as a football play. Josh Burris outlined here why baseball is a fun sport to watch, as many casual fans experienced this World Series. Making local teams more accessible for cord-cutters in the team’s region would be a valuable first step to let younger fans enjoy the sport. Letting the players exhibit more flair and style into their play can make the game more fun and exciting for a group of fans that spend their time watching vines and memes on the internet daily. Finally, sell the crap out of the World Baseball Classic to not only expose the brand on an international market, but also help casual and new American fans meet the biggest American players on a competitive squad. Rob Manfred has a lot on his plate for the future. Only time will tell how baseball’s popularity will transition from here.

 

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How Did the Cubs Build a World Series Squad?

The Chicago Cubs won Game seven of the World Series on Wednesday, ending the longest drought in MLB history. In one of the most exciting games in baseball history, the Cubs defeated the Cleveland Indians in extra innings and were thus crowned World Champions. GM Theo Epstein has assembled a team in Chicago that is built for the long haul, a team that can truly compete for the next five World Series. How did Theo Epstein assemble such a talented squad of players?

The answer may seem simple, but in truth, is a lot harder than it sounds. Epstein nailed his draft picks and won more of his trades than he lost. Before the 2016 season commenced, Epstein knew his team had a chance to compete, and went out and signed players that could fill the missing roles in the team. It is a recipe for success that Epstein established at his previous tenure in Boston where he had broken another curse in 2004 before winning the 2007 World Series with Boston as well.

Epstein began his most recent tenure in Chicago in October 2011. He would proceed to finish in the cellar of the division his first three seasons before getting to the NLCS in 2015 and winning the World Series in 2016. This is important because those three seasons in the cellar led to very nice draft picks for Epstein and the Cubs organization.

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Theo Epstein assembled a World Series team in 5 years. Could he be considered one of the greatest GMs of all time? Photo courtesy of Boston.com

2012, aka Epstein’s first draft, led to the Cubs drafting Albert Almora Jr. with the 6th overall pick. The 2013 MLB Draft saw the Cubs owning the second overall pick, which would be used on Kris Bryant. 2014 sparked controversy for the Cubs, as the organization drafted Kyle Schwarber, which was seen as a reach for the Cubs at the time by pundits. These three first rounders were all on the World Series squad, with Bryant and Schwarber both contributing heavily with their production at the plate.

Epstein was a trade machine in Boston, and the same philosophy carried over to his tenure in Chicago. Epstein was a master of selling players at their peak and actually netting a strong return in terms of prospects. For example, the Cubs traded Scott Feldman to help shore up Baltimore’s rotation in exchange for reliever Pedro Strop and starter Jake Arrieta. Arrieta had never pitched with great success in Baltimore, averaging an ERA of 5.46 while playing for the Orioles. Since joining the Cubs, his ERA since 2013 has averaged out to 2.52 over his last three seasons.

Arrieta is not the only present core Cub to be received in a trade. Anthony Rizzo, a stud first base prospect at the time, was picked up from San Diego for a package built around Andrew Cashner. Cashner  had some inconsistent success in San Diego, but Rizzo is currently one of the top first basemen in all of baseball. The Cubs traded starter Ryan Dempster, who was having a very strong season in his own right, to the Rangers in exchange for Kyle Hendricks. Addison Russell was also picked up in a trade by Epstein, who had to give up Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel (yes, the same Hammel who would go on to resign with the Cubs in the following offseason) for the package built around Russell.

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Addison Russell is the reason Starlin Castro was traded by Epstein. Russell proved the faith was true as he knocked in 6 RBIs in Game 6 of the World Series. Photo courtesy of realsport101.com

Epstein also made the right decision in regards to personnel choices on the roster. Epstein had acquired a plethora of talent at nearly every position in the minors. Epstein leaned on this talent as he traded veterans to be replaced by the inexperienced rookies. Epstein dumped Starlin Castro so both Addison Russell and Javier Baez could have starting positions in the Cubs middle infield. Plenty of talent were traded or axed for marginal returns to make room for the future stars of the Cubs. Yet, despite all these wily veterans being traded, none of the talent really amounted to much after the trades. The biggest names include players like Justin Ruggiano, Marlon Byrd, Carlos Zambrano, and Alfonso Soriano.

Looking at all this wheeling and dealing, Epstein is bound to come across a couple trades that could be viewed as losses right? In all honesty, there is really only two trades that could be viewed as losses and both trades have reasonable defense for the action. First, was DJ LeMahieu being traded to the Rockies. LeMahieu has since produced an All-Star season playing second base for the Rockies, but the trade can be defended as Epstein already had his future middle infield in Castro and Baez (with Russell on the way). The only other lost trade was trading Welington Castillo to Seattle for next to nothing. Truth be told, Castillo never really was an offensive threat in Chicago, and the Cubs had already turned to alternatives to replace him at the catching position.

In truth, Epstein has been nearly flawless in constructing this 2016 World Champion squad. A few things shook out in his favor, like Jake Arrieta shaking off his kinks and becoming an ace pitcher. That being said, every team needs a little luck to win in the playoffs. Epstein’s impact trades and draft picks have setup the Cubs for success for the next five years. Now the final test will be to see if Epstein and the Cubs can sustain this success for the next decade or so, potentially putting together a team that can be a true dynasty, much to the dismay of the rest of the NL Central.

Challenging History: Why the Cubs will Win the World Series

The World Series is finally upon us. After three weeks of fantastic postseason baseball, the MLB is finally down to two teams: the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians. Neither of these teams are a very familiar face in the Fall Classic. The Indians haven’t been to a World Series in just under two decades, last appearing in 1997 and losing to the Marlins 4-3. The Cubs last made an appearance another 50 years prior: in 1945, when they lost to the Detroit Tigers in seven games. Of course, neither team just goes to the World Series for the sake of going, their goal is to win it all; and while the Cubs’ 108 year drought without a World Series is one of the most famed in all of pro sports, the Indians last won a World Series in 1948. That’s a combined 176 years these two teams have gone without a championship and both are hungry for a title.

But that’s all in the past, one of those World Series droughts will be ended over the next couple weeks in what should be a very entertaining matchup against two of the most dominant teams in the MLB. The Indians coasted through the American League playoffs, only dropping one game throughout the ALDS and ALCS combined. The Cubs didn’t have too much more trouble, losing just three games on their run to the Series. But everything these teams have done to get to this point, all that matters now is how they perform over the next four to seven games. I think the Cubs will emerge as the World Series victor for the first time in over a century, and here’s why:

Superior Starting Pitching

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Jon Lester has been the Cubs’ ace this year, both in the regular season and postseason. Can he continue to step up when it matters most? Image courtesy of grantland.com

The Indians have been renowned throughout the season for their strong pitching staff. But the Cubs pitching staff is certainly no slouch either, actually leading the entire MLB with a 3.15 ERA in the regular season (down to 2.93 in the postseason). While the Indians pitching staff has a lower ERA in the 2016 playoffs, they’ve looked a lot more reliant on their bullpen over that time. Only Corey Kluber threw more than six innings in any of his starts so far this postseason. He accounts for both of the Indians’ quality starts in the 2016 postseason. The Cubs starters, however, have accrued five quality starts so far (albeit with two additional chances to do so). Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks have both looked spectacular so far, allowing five combined runs over six starts this postseason.

I think the Indians bullpen looks stronger coming into the Series, but if the Cubs’ starters are able to carry like they have so far, they can limit the time their bullpen spends on the mound. Which allows the Cubs bullpen to be well-rested, especially compared to their Cleveland counterparts. I’m looking for Hendricks and Lester to continue their dominant runs in the postseason, and if they can draw out their starts and keep the Indians off the board, I think they’ll be in good shape throughout the series.

Their Hitting – Especially in clutch situations

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Javier Baez has been clutch thus far in the postseason, now we’ll see if he and the Cubs can bring Chicago its first World Series title since 1908. Photo courtesy of the Chicago Tribune.

Regardless of whether their pitching can only go blow-for-blow with the Indians, the Cubs offense certainly looks to be the stronger of the two headed into the series. Chicago’s offense is averaging 4.8 runs per-game this postseason, compared to Cleveland’s 3.4. In particular, I think the Cubs’ offense has looked particularly strong in the late innings of the game and clutch situations. The Cubs trailed coming into the 8th inning on four occasions against the Dodgers. They were able to come away with two wins in those games, scoring five runs in the 8th innings of games one and five. Those opportunities were only available to them after they tied the largest 9th inning comeback in postseason history to finish off the Giants in game four of the NLDS. The Indians, on the other hand, hadn’t gone into any of their seven wins trailing after the 6th inning.

Even not taking the clutch factor into effect, the Cubs offense just appears to have more weapons in general at the plate. Javier Baez leads both teams with a .342 batting average and seven RBIs this postseason. NL MVP candidate, Kris Bryant, is hitting .333 with six RBIs as well. Anthony Rizzo showed improvement through the Dodgers series, after a weak showing against the Giants. He had just one hit in 15 at-bats vs. San Francisco, compared to eight hits in 20 ABs against the Dodgers.

The Indians Extended Break

Cleveland finished their series against Toronto last Wednesday. They won’t have taken the field for six days, compared the Cubs who are coming in on just three days of rest after finishing their series against the Dodgers on Saturday. I know this may seem counter-intuitive: shouldn’t the team with more rest be coming in with an advantage? This isn’t always the case, as we saw in 2012 where the Giants swept the Tigers who had come into the series on a longer break. While one case doesn’t make it a trend, baseball players tend to be creatures of habit. They get into a rhythm of playing games day in and day out over the course of the season. It can be a bit disorienting to come back to the diamond after such a long hiatus. We’ll see if the Indians have the mentality required to avoid that potential disorientation that could cause them to get behind early in the series.

The World Series begins Tuesday, October 25 in Cleveland. First pitch is scheduled for 8 PM Eastern time, and will be broadcast on FOX.

Stats in this piece were taken from baseballreference.com, ESPN.com, and MLB.com

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One Step Closer: NLCS Preview

With the NLDS out of the way, the Cubs and the Dodgers now sit just one series away from the World Series. Both teams showed a flair for late game heroics, with the Cubs tying the largest ninth inning comeback in MLB playoff history to win game four in San Francisco.  The Dodgers scored five runs in the final three innings in games four and five to eke out a series win vs. Washington. During the regular season, the Cubs won the series 4-3, capped by some stellar pitching against some of the Dodgers best bats. Like every series so far, the Cubs vs. Dodgers matchup will pit some of the NL’s best against one another on the mound. Here’s what I think each team will have to do, and who will have to do it to win the series.

Cubs

The Cubs come into the series the favorite, and with good reason. Joe Maddon’s Cinderella Cubs appear to be the team destined to end Chicago’s World Series drought. Jon Lester and the rest of the pitching staff have been fantastic on the mound throughout the year, and Kris Bryant heads a Cubs offense that’s almost unstoppable when it’s running at peak performance.

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Can the NL MVP favorite lead the Cubs to their first World Series since 1945? Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Bryant has to be one guy that everybody is looking at coming into this series. He put up fantastic numbers against the Dodgers during the regular season, batting .320 and hitting four homers in seven games against the team. He hit .375 against a stout Giants rotation, and is one of many weapons the Cubs will look to utilize on offense. Another guy who we may not have expected to be looking at coming into the series is Javier Baez. There’s no denying Baez’s talent, but he wasn’t putting up the same gaudy numbers as Bryant or Anthony Rizzo during the regular season. He showed up big against San Francisco, providing the only run for either team in game one of the series. He also batted .375 throughout the series, and scored four runs during that time.

Two guys that Chicago needs to step up at the plate against the Dodgers are Jason Heyward and Anthony Rizzo. Heyward had a lot of success against LA during the regular season, batting .360 with a homer in seven games. However, he didn’t provide much at the plate in the series vs. the Giants, squeaking out a lone double in game two for his only hit of the series. Anthony Rizzo also only had one hit during the series against the Giants, but also worked his way on base with two walks in the series. The Cubs will definitely need to see more than that against the Dodgers from their regular season leader in RBI’s.

On the mound for the Cubs, Jon Lester is obviously one guy you have to watch. Lester went eight scoreless against an anemic Giants offense. We’ll have to see how he fares against a Dodgers offense that should provide significantly more resistance. Eyes will also be on Kyle Hendricks, who took a line drive off his arm in game two against the Giants. While he’s been cleared to pitch in game two, we’ll have to see how he fares and if his arm has any lingering tenderness that could take him off of his game. We’ll also have to see how the Cubs bullpen as a whole fares. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts showed that he’s not afraid to go to the pen early and often in the NLDS; we’ll see if Joe Maddon responds in similar fashion, and if the Cubs bullpen is up for the additional pressure.

 

Dodgers

The Dodgers willed their way past the Nationals in a gritty five-game series that came down to the wire. While they aren’t sitting on a drought quite as long as the Cubs, the organization hasn’t been to a World Series since 1988, when they won the series 4-1 against the A’s to cap off Orel Hershiser’s monumental season. Hershiser may be long retired, but this Dodgers pitching staff still looks plenty strong, perhaps even more so in the bullpen than the rotation.

Manager Dave Roberts went to the bullpen early and often against the Nationals. Only one starter made it past the fifth inning, Clayton Kershaw, who went five innings in game one and 6.2 in game four. Kenta Maeda and Rich Hill combined for just ten innings of work in their three starts. The Dodgers bullpen looked very strong for most of the series, just as it had during the regular season. The Dodgers had six of its arms combine for no runs allowed in 14.2 innings over those five games, with only Kanley Jansen and Grant Dayton surrendering runs from the pen during the NLDS. Joe Blanton saw the most work during that time, aside from Jansen, allowing just one hit in five innings of work over four appearances. On the mound, I’ll be watching for him to bridge the gap between Dodgers starters and the back of the bullpen if Roberts continues his current bullpen-centered pitching style.

Of course, I’ll also be looking for the Dodgers starters to step up in this series, to ease the stress of a potential seven-game series on the pen’s arms. Kershaw surrendered eight runs combined in his two starts against the Nationals, and the Cubs offense has a lot more weapons than Washington did. Rich Hill surrendered five runs over seven innings in two starts as well. The Dodgers rotation will have to step up to the postseason pressure to keep the game within striking distance for their offense.

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Justin Turner showed up big vs. the Nationals, can he continue his hot hitting against the Cubs? Image courtesy of Fox Sports.

Speaking of their offense, they’ll have to turn in a stronger performance against the Cubs in the postseason than they did during the regular season. I’m looking at Justin Turner specifically, who was just 2-for-24 with eight strikeouts in seven games against Chicago in the regular season. Turner was a huge performer in the NLDS, batting .400 and driving in 5 RBI’s, including the deciding two-run triple in the seventh inning of game five against Washington. Corey Seager is another guy who will have to step his game up in the NLCS. He had just three hits in the NLDS, including two solo homers, all coming in the first inning of the game. Outside of the first inning, he was 0-for-18. While it’s great to get your team started on the right foot, Seager will have to provide more support at the plate later in the game to give his team a chance. Joc Pederson is the last guy I’m looking at in this series. He, also had an abysmal time against Chicago in the regular season, going 0-for-20 with eight strikeouts. Pederson hit .333 in the NLDS, and provided the catalyst for their game-winning seventh inning in game five with a solo shot on the first pitch from Max Scherzer. He’ll have to continue to come up clutch to help his team overcome the juggernaut that is the Cubs.

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