A slump by the Milwaukee Brewers coupled with a surge by the Chicago Cubs has put them in a tough spot in the National League Central.
X-Chicago Cubs 101-61
Life is good right now for the Chicago Cubs as they are set to embark on the 2017 Major League Baseball season. The Cubs are fresh off of winning their first World Series Championship since 1908, and the bad news for the rest of the National League is they might not be slowing down anytime soon.
The Cubs won the World Series with a solid blend of youngsters and veteran players as this team was skillfully crafted by their president of baseball operations in Theo Epstein. Epstein began the process of building the Cubs at the conclusion of the 2011 Major League Baseball season as he inherited a team that was one of the league’s bottom feeders. And in less than five years Epstein was able to lead the Cubs to World Series glory.
The Cubs possess arguably the best infield combination that Major League Baseball has seen since the 1970’s when the Los Angeles Dodgers had Ron Cey, Bill Russell, Davey Lopes, and Steve Garvey, or the Cincinnati Reds of that same era with Tony Perez, Davey Concepcion, Joe Morgan, and Pete Rose. And heading into a new season, this unit will once again be the fuel of the Cubs engine.
It hasn’t taken third baseman Kris Bryant that long to establish himself as one of the game’s top players as in just two seasons, he has already been named as the National League’s Rookie of the Year in 2015, while he took home N.L. MVP honors last year. Bryant is only 25-years of age and already he has become a household name as he batted .292 with 29 home runs and 102 runs batted in. Bryant’s swing is extremely effortless as he can carry the Cubs lineup for weeks at a time. And if Bryant were to somehow slip, he can lean on Rizzo right behind him in the Cubs lineup.
Like Bryant, first baseman Anthony Rizzo batted .292 while he launched 32 home runs and drove in 109 runs. Together Rizzo and Bryant give the Cubs two of the best power bats in the National League, while giving the fans on Waveland and Sheffield Avenues plenty to cheer about.
Russell was able to hit 21 home runs last season, but he must improve his batting average which was only at .238 last season, while he also needs to cut down on the errors at shortstop where he committed 14.
Second baseman Ben Zobrist is in the midst of his second tour of duty under manager Joe Maddon as these two helped the Tampa Bay Rays win the American League Pennant in 2008. Zobrist brings a good presence to a locker room, and more importantly he knows how to win. In 2015, Zobrist was traded by the Oakland Athletics to the Kansas City Royals and he was vital in their winning the World Series. Zobrist would then become an unrestricted free agent and as he signed with Cubs, he batted .357 in the Fall Classic which led to him being the World Series MVP. And even though that Zobrist will be 36-years of age in May, expect him to once again have a solid impact on this Cubs team.
The Cubs lost outfielder Dexter Fowler in free agency as he signed with the St. Louis Cardinals, but they won’t skip a beat as they brought outfielder Jon Jay on board. Jay knows a thing or two about winning as he helped the Cardinals win the World Series Title in 2011, and he fits into that mode of those scrappy players that are willing to do anything to win which is something that every championship team needs.
Outfielder Jason Heyward needs to put his disappointing 2016 campaign behind him as he was only able to bat .230 with 7 homers and 49 runs batted in after signing a huge contract in free agency. The last two years have seen Kyle Schwarber be a man without a position as the Cubs haven’t committed to him as a catcher, while they’ve stuck him in left field. Schwarber has been like a deer in the headlights in the outfield, but as he plenty of pop in his bat, Maddon must find a place for him in this lineup.
The Cubs starting rotation is an embarrassment of riches as each starter has the potential to win at least 15 games. For the second time in the Major League Baseball career of starting pitcher Jon Lester, he won 19 games, and as he has a potent lineup to work with, he’ll still be one of the better pitchers in the National League. The last two years have seen starting pitcher Jake Arrieta combine to win 40 games. And with Arrieta scheduled to become a free agent at the end of this season, he should be locked in on the mound. The win total of starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks has increased in each of his three MLB seasons, and the sky is the limit for him after he won 16 games last year which included him leading the N.L. in earned run average at 2.13. Starting pitcher Jason Hammel has been a journeyman in MLB, but he’s coming off of his first 15-win campaign, while veteran starting John Lackey rounds out a staff that’ll it be tough to get wins against.
As a unit the Cubs led the National League in team earned run average at 3.15 last season and their bullpen will once again be difficult to deal with. Relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman came up big for the Cubs in their run to the World Series Championship. But when Chapman hit free agency and his asking price was too high for Chicago, Epstein got creative as he traded outfielder Jorge Soler to the Royals for relief pitcher Wade Davis.
Davis is another former Rays player who was under Maddon, and after arms issues took away his usefulness as a starter, he has been valuable in the bullpen. Davis was lights out for the Royals in their run to the World Series Championship in 2015, and he gives Maddon a very reliable arm to close out games.
The Cubs should expect to get every team’s best punch this season due to the fact that they are the defending champs. And unless the Cubs have themselves a World Series hangover, expect this team to be right back in the hunt to go all the way.
St. Louis Cardinals 87-75
Make no mistake about it that the St. Louis Cardinals are one of Major League Baseball’s most consistent teams. Since 2000, the Cardinals have reached the postseason 12 times, while they have a pair of World Series Championships to their credit during this span. But the Cards will enter the 2017 Major League Baseball in an unfamiliar spot as they missed the postseason for the first time since 2010, however they can take solace in knowing that the last time this happened, they would win it all in the following season.
Mike Matheny is set to begin his sixth year as the manager of the Cardinals and he’s never had a losing record. For 13 years Matheny was a Major League Baseball catcher which included a five-year stint with the Cards. And that knowledge of the game has helped Matheny have success in St. Louis. What has also helped Matheny is that he can rely on one of the best catchers in MLB to lead the Cardinals pitching staff.
The last 13 Major League Baseball seasons have seen catcher Yadier Molina control things behind the plate for St. Louis. Molina is one of the best in the business as far as calling a game for the Cardinals pitching staff, while his defensive skills are second to none. Molina has been known to throw out runners who are attempting to steal on him from his knees, while he can catch players napping at first base. Molina is a lifetime .285 hitter that always tends to get the clutch hit, and the age of 34 with him set to crack the Cardinals top 20 list for all-time wins above replacement as he’s currently at 33, it’s time to give him serious consideration to one day be enshrined into Cooperstown.
Molina’s ability to call a game will come in handy for a Cardinals pitching staff that is seeking to get back on track. Last year the Cards team earned run average of 4.08 was seventh in the National League which was a drop from where this staff has typically been in recent years.
In the off-season Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak signed starting pitcher Carlos Martinez to a five-year extension that is worth $51 million. Martinez is coming off of a 16-win campaign and he can be the future of the Cards rotation if he learns how to consistently bring it every fifth day. Starting pitcher Adam Wainwright might no longer be looked at as a National League Cy Young Award candidate, but even the age of 35, he is still a quality hurler that is capable of winning 15 games. And although that there are question marks surrounding both Martinez and Wainwright, there are even bigger ones in regards to starting pitchers Mike Leake and Michael Wacha who have been up and down just like the stock market.
Last year would see relief pitcher Trevor Rosenthal lose his status as the Cardinals closer to Seung-hwan Oh. After saving 19 games and posting an earned run average of 1.92, Oh should once again be the incumbent to get the baseball from Matheny heading into the ninth inning. But if Rosenthal is able to regain the magic that saw him combine to save 93 games in 2014 and 2015, it will add depth to the bullpen in St. Louis.
Offensively the Cardinals finished third in runs scored in the National League with 779. The injury bug really got the best of St. Louis in 2016 as only two everyday players were able to appear in at least 135 games which means that there is some optimism around this squad if they can remain healthy.
After languishing with the San Diego Padres for three years, second baseman Jedd Gyorko appears to have found a home in St. Louis. Gyorko led the Cards in home runs last season with 30 which was also a career-high for him as he appears to be another player who has bought into the “Cardinal Way”. Three of the last four years have seen infielder Matt Carpenter be an All-Star as he is one of the scrappiest players in baseball. There’s absolutely nothing that stands out about Carpenter’s ability, but he is one of Major League Baseball’s hardest workers which has allowed him to become a cornerstone in St. Louis.
Outfielder Randal Grichuk has worked his way up through the Cardinals system and after his 24 homers last year, he could be in the mix to be an All-Star in 2017. Outfielder Stephen Piscotty was the Cardinals first round choice in 2012 and he is beginning to come into his own as he hit 22 home runs, while batting .273, and driving in 85 runs last season. And just like Grichuk, Piscotty could flirt with being an All-Star this year as both players, along with the newest Cardinal in Dexter Fowler give St. Louis plenty of range in the outfield defensively.
After the Cards missed out on the playoffs last year, I expect this organization to put forth the effort to get back to the postseason while pushing the Cubs in the National League Central.
Pittsburgh Pirates 84-78
From 2013-2015, the Pittsburgh Pirates enjoyed a level of success that they had been denied for a very long time. The Pirates enjoyed winning baseball for the first time since the early 1990’s which also saw them postseason bound. But 2016 would be a different story in Pittsburgh as the Pirates took a step back as they limped to the finish line with a record of 78-83.
A big reason for the Pirates struggles last season was that center fielder Andrew McCutchen had a down year. McCutchen batted a career-low .256 which is a far cry from a player who won the National League MVP Award in 2013. This off-season has seen the Pirates front office flirt with the notion of trading McCutchen which has yet to happen. But where there is smoke, there is also fire, and I do believe that McCutchen’s time with the Pirates in winding down. However if things are able to be smoothed over between McCutchen and the Pirates, this outfield has the makings of one of the better units in the N.L.
Outfielder Gregor Polanco continues to emerge as a solid contributor after he hit a career-high 22 homers last season for the Pirates. Polanco also continues to flash the leather in the outfield, and if he’s able to get his batting average up, he should be able to increase his impact for the Bucs. Outfielder Starling Marte’s power numbers may have dipped last season, but he has become more of a consistent hitter at the plate with a batting average of .311, along with an on-base percentage of .362. And if Polanco is able to have a good balance this season between his power and consistency at the plate, the Pirates will be in business.
The Pirates pitching staff also needs to rebound after a down 2016. The Pirates team earned run average of 4.21 was ninth in the National League as they were ravaged by injuries.
No Pirates starter was able to make at least 22 starts last season and led by starting pitcher Gerrit Cole, this aspect must change if the Bucs want to flirt with getting a playoff berth. Cole won 19 games in 2015 and finished fourth in the National League Cy Young Award voting. But Cole was never able to recover from going over the 200-inning plateau in 2015 for the first time his career as this will be something that Pittsburgh must monitor this season.
Along with Cole, there are nothing but question marks on the Pirates pitching staff which has the look of being held together by spit and glue.
With the National League Central expected to be a battle between the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals, it will be hard for the Pirates to not get lost in the shuffle within the division.
Milwaukee Brewers 70-92
With the recent success in the National League Central of the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals, the Milwaukee Brewers have become a forgotten franchise. The Brewers have failed to make the postseason since 2011 as they are a middle of the pack team. The Brewers currently find themselves in a rebuilding process while they also have some aging players on their roster which doesn’t leave that much room for optimism heading into the 2017 Major League Baseball season.
After taking over midway through the 2015 Major League Baseball season, Craig Counsell is set to begin his second full season as Brewers manager. The Brewers embody the kind of player that Counsell was during 15-year MLB playing career as they are a scrappy bunch that doesn’t mind being the underdogs. But does Milwaukee have a legitimate shot to be a postseason team in 2017?
As Brewers general manager David Stearns has spent the last year trading away most of the quality players, the 2017 team in Milwaukee will be unrecognizable to the casual baseball fan.
Utility man Chris Carter led the National League in home runs last year 41. However the Brewers elected to not bring him back as he joined the New York Yankees which leaves a hole in their lineup. The Brewers still have outfielder Ryan Braun who in spite of the fact that he was linked to performance-enhancing drugs earlier his career, is still one of the better players in the National League. At the age of 32, Braun was able to bat .305 last season, while hitting 30 homers. I was shocked to see that the Brewers have yet to trade Braun as he could be very beneficial to a contender. But in the interim Braun gives Milwaukee a solid veteran in the middle of their lineup as they look to stay afloat.
One building block that the Brewers do have for the future is infielder Jonathan Villar. After being acquired from the Houston Astros, Villar was able to lead the National League in stolen bases last year with 62 as the Brewers appear to have themselves a table setter going forward.
The Brewers pitching staff only managed to get 62 quality starts last season which was 13th in the National League and there isn’t much optimism heading into the new campaign. No Brewers pitcher last season was able to throw at least 200 innings which included starting pitcher Zach Davies who led this staff with just 11 wins. And as the Brewers don’t have a prototypical ace to rely on, it will be difficult for this team to be a contender.
More than likely the Brewers won’t be a playoff team in 2017, but they will be scrappy.
Cincinnati Reds 65-97
It’s no secret that the Cincinnati Reds are in rebuilding mode as the last few years have seen them become an afterthought in the National League Central. The Reds are coming off of consecutive 90-loss seasons for the first time since 1934 and there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight for the current baseball futility in Southern Ohio. Manager Bryan Price is set to begin his third season as Reds manager and as he has spent the last two years on the hot seat, he could become the scapegoat if Cincinnati is unable to get it turned around.
Two of the bright spots on the Reds roster for the upcoming season are outfielder Adam Duvall and first baseman Joey Votto. Last year saw Duvall become an overnight sensation as he batted .297 with 33 home runs 103 runs batted in which led to his first All-Star Game appearance. This was Duvall’s first opportunity to become an everyday player and now it is time to see if he is ready to turn the corner and put these numbers up consistently. During the past ten years Votto has gone about his business and been the face of the franchise for the Reds as his offensive numbers put him in the mix with some of the greats who have played for this franchise. After a down 2014, Votto has once again found his groove at the plate as the former National League MVP is one of the best all-around hitters in baseball.
But as the Reds are rebuilding, it will be interesting to see how much longer that Votto will be in Cincinnati. Votto is still owed nearly $200 million on his contract which runs through 2024 and at some point you have to expect Reds president of baseball operations Dick Williams to move his All-Star to a contender which would be beneficial to all parties involved.
After appearing in 159 games last season, third baseman Eugenio Suarez could be ready to become a breakout player in Cincinnati. Like Duvall, Suarez has finally gotten a consistent chance to show what he can do and he could be one of the centerpieces of the Reds rebuild. Suarez is only 25-years of age and after hitting a career-high 21 homers last season, opponents have to pay more attention to him.
But as the Reds lineup could be fun to watch, their pitching staff will once again have some questions. Last season the Reds were 14th in the National League in team earned run average (4.91), and 10th in quality stars with 67.
Starting pitcher Dan Straily led the Reds in victories last season with 14, but he was traded to the Miami Marlins in January. Starting pitcher Brandon Finnegan emerged on the Major League Baseball scene in the 2014 playoffs when he helped the Kansas City Royals win the American League Pennant. But after Finnegan was traded to the Reds, his role has been shifted to that of a starter. Finnegan does have an electric fastball, and if he is able to reach the 200-inning mark this season, there is a possibility that he could also strike out 200 batters.
As the Reds more than likely will fall short of making the postseason here in 2017, I doubt that Price will be able to save his job. However the problems in Cincinnati are bigger than Price as this organization has become a train wreck.
Although that the 2016 Major League Baseball season is in the books, the action is heating up on the hot stove. 29 teams are out to topple the Chicago Cubs as World Series Champions, while the Cubs want to remain as the kings of the mountain. MLB’s Winter Meetings are set to take place next month, while we all are awaiting a new collective bargaining agreement, but there are some moves that could be made in the next few weeks on the trade front and here they are.
Chris Sale-Starting Pitcher-Chicago White Sox
The past five years have seen Chris Sale become one of the better starting pitchers in Major League Baseball. Over that stretch Sale is 68-47 while he’s also been a five-time American League All-Star. But as good as Sale has been, he has been unable to make the White Sox a contender as they’ve finished with a losing record in each of the last four years.
The boiling point between Sale and the White Sox may have been reached this past summer when he was sent home after he allegedly destroyed the team’s throwback uniforms that they were scheduled to wear during his start as he wasn’t a fan of them. It appeared that this would be the opening for White Sox president of baseball operations Kenny Williams to pull the trigger on trading Sale, but he decided to hold on.
However as the off-season is here, there are several contenders such as the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, and Los Angeles Dodgers to could be in line for a quality front line starter such as Sale which could see valuable prospects return to the White Sox organization.
Joey Votto-First Baseman-Cincinnati Reds
After the Cincinnati Reds fired manager Dusty Baker following the conclusion of the 2013 Major League Baseball season, their fortunes have changed. Under Baker, the Reds made the postseason three times during his six years in Cincinnati. But since Baker was fired, the Reds have not had a winning season as they appear to be in rebuilding mode.
The past decade has seen first baseman Joey Votto emerge as one of the best players in Reds franchise history. Votto’s career on-base percentage of .425 is tops in Reds franchise history while his batting average of .313 is fifth, and his 221 home runs are ninth. Votto has a National League MVP to his credit as he took home the honor in 2010, while he has also earned one N.L. Gold Glove Award. But as the Reds are rebuilding, Votto is 33-years of age and he has hefty contract attached to him.
Votto is under contract through 2024 and he is still owed $192 million. Quality first baseman are tough to come by in baseball which makes Votto a hot commodity for contenders around baseball such as the Boston Red Sox, Seattle Mariners, Houston Astros, and New York Mets if they are willing to take on his take on his massive contract for the next eight years.
Evan Longoria-Third Baseman-Tampa Bay Rays
For the last nine years, third baseman Evan Longoria has become the face of the Tampa Bay Rays franchise. The Rays made Longoria the third overall pick of the 2006 Major League Baseball Draft, and he would be vital in their American League Pennant in 2008. In a Rays uniform, Longoria has gone on to be a three-time A.L. All-Star while he is also the organization’s all-time leader in home runs (241), doubles (302), and runs batted in (806). And at the age of 31, Longoria is coming off of a career-high in home runs with 36.
But Longoria is putting up these numbers for a Rays team that is coming off of their first, last place finish in the American League East since 2007 as they are in full rebuild mode and trading their best player in franchise history could be beneficial for both sides. Longoria is still owed $107 million through 2023, and as the Rays play in one of the smaller markets in Major League Baseball, it doesn’t make financial sense for the organization to keep a player who will command a high salary on a cellar dweller.
If the Rays are interested in trading Longoria, you can expect a plethora of teams to inquire about his availability. The Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers, New York Mets, and San Francisco Giants could all be in play for Longoria as they’re all contenders that need help at the hot corner.
Ryan Braun-Outfielder-Milwaukee Brewers
From 2007-2012, the Milwaukee Brewers were one of baseball’s better teams with outfielder Ryan Braun at the forefront. In 2007, Braun was named as the National League’s Rookie of the Year as he batted .324 with 34 home runs, and 97 runs batted in. Braun would continue to put up impressive numbers for the Brewers which included him being named as the N.L.’s MVP in 2011.
But shortly after that Braun’s popularity began to fade when he was linked to the Biogenesis scandal. Braun’s involvement would see him suspended by Major League Baseball for parts of two seasons and he quickly became an afterthought.
However at the age of 32, Braun is coming off of one of his best seasons as he batted .305 with 30 home runs and 91 runs batted in this past year for Milwaukee. The Brewers went 73-89 here in 2016 as they are an organization that needs to figure out which direction that they are headed in.
Braun has five years and $91 million remaining on his contract and if a big-market team such as the Baltimore Orioles, Houston Astros, Los Angeles Angels, San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners, or Texas Rangers would be willing to take on the money, they could potentially get a quality veteran bat in the middle of their lineup.
Paul Goldschmidt-First Baseman-Arizona Diamondbacks
Over the past few years I have maintained that if Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt played in a bigger market, or on a better team that he would be a household name. Goldschmidt got a taste of the postseason in 2011 as a member of the Diamondbacks, but as his play as has improved, the team around him has gotten worse.
Each of the last four seasons have seen Goldschmidt be an All-Star which included this year as he batted .297 with 24 home runs and 95 runs batted in. But the last three years have seen the Diamondbacks finish with a losing record.
There have been wholesale changes over the past few weeks in the Diamondbacks front office as it isn’t clear how much power that the team’s president of baseball operations Tony La Russa still has being that a new general manager in Mike Hazen has been brought in. And if the Diamondbacks truly feel that it’s time to start over, they could get a king’s ransom in return for Goldschmidt as he is the complete package for as a first baseman being that he can hit for power and average, while he’s also one of the better defensive players in Major League Baseball at his position.
And if Goldschmidt is made available by the Diamondbacks, expect teams such as the Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, Houston Astros, New York Mets, Seattle Mariners, and St. Louis Cardinals to be in the mix.
Brett Gardner-Outfielder-New York Yankees
New York Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner will never be confused with being one of the most talented Major League Baseball players, but he makes up for it with heart and sheer determination. Gardner has spent his entire nine-year career with the Yankees which has seen him win a World Series Titles along with one All-Star appearance. Gardner is a lifetime .264 hitter, and although that he doesn’t have the speed that he did earlier in his career to steal bases, he is still an above average defensive presence in left field for the Yankees.
The past few years have seen the Yankees flirt with dealing Gardner who is now 33-years of age as New York is looking to get younger. But the only way that I see this scenario playing out where Gardner is trading during the off-season is if the Yankees are able to sign a free-agent outfielder such as Yoenis Cespedes which would make the veteran player expendable.
And if that’s the case I could see the Yankees trading Gardner to a litany of teams as they would more than likely be looking for some help to their pitching staff in return.
Andrew McCutchen-Outfielder-Pittsburgh Pirates
As the Pittsburgh Pirates have returned to respectability, outfielder Andrew McCutchen has become the face of that movement. McCutchen was the 11th overall pick of the 2005 Major League Baseball Draft by the Pirates, and by 2009, he was ready for his debut. In 2013, McCutchen helped the Pirates reach the postseason for the first time since 1992, and his .317 batting average, to go along with 21 home runs, 84 runs batted in, and 27 stolen bases were good enough for him to be named as the National League’s MVP. McCutchen is a five-time All-Star, but he had a down year in 2016 as he only batted .256 and you have to wonder at the age of 30 if his productivity is set to decline?
I equate McCutchen’s numbers in 2016 to that of simply a down year for both he and the Pirates. But if the Pirates are serious in trading the former National League MVP, there will be plenty of teams that would be interested in his services.
Brian Dozier-Second Baseman-Minnesota Twins
The past six years have seen the Minnesota Twins be one of the worst teams in Major League Baseball which included them losing 103 games this past season. But one bright spots for the Twins over the last few years has been the emergence of second baseman Brian Dozier.
In each of Dozier’s six seasons, his productivity has increased which saw him hit 42 home runs this past season.
Dozier isn’t scheduled to become a free agent until 2019 and it is hard to believe that the Twins will be a legitimate contender before then. And as the Twins are in need of an injection of talent, a trade of Dozier could bring back some quality prospects for their minor-league system. I do expect to see teams such as the Los Angeles Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Toronto Blue Jays show interest in Dozier if he is made available by the Twins.
Carlos Gonzalez-Outfielder-Colorado Rockies
The thin air of the Rocky Mountain region allows the Colorado Rockies to consistently have one of the best offenses in Major League Baseball with one of the prime examples of that being outfielder Carlos Gonzalez. Gonzalez has spent the last eight seasons with the Rockies which was highlighted by him hitting 40 home runs in 2015. This past season Gonzalez batted .298 with 25 home runs and 100 runs batted in.
But as good as Gonzalez’s production has been, he is not going to get the Rockies any closer to being a contender being that their pitching staff continuously struggles as their 4.91 team earned run average was 13th in the National League this past season.
Gonzalez just turned 31-years of age last month, and he is set to earn $20 million next season in the final year of his contract. I doubt that you’ll see Gonzalez re-sign with Colorado once his deal is up which means that it is prudent for the Rockies to attempt to trade him now in order to get some value back for him.
Unlike other players on this list, I don’t see Gonzalez getting traded over the winter due to his contract. However if the Rockies fall out of contention next season, you can expect to hear Gonzalez’s name in trade talks leading up to the trade deadline as there will be interested teams even if they know that he could only be a rental.
Joe Mauer-First Baseman-Minnesota Twins
The offensive skills of Minnesota Twins first baseman Joe Mauer have declined rather rapidly ever since he was named as the American League’s MVP in 2009. That year saw Mauer bat .365 with 28 home runs and 96 runs batted in, but he hasn’t come close to that production in recent years as he only batted .261 with 11 homers and 49 runs batted in this past season.
Mauer is a fan favorite in the Twin Cities being that he was born in St. Paul, Minnesota. But baseball is a business and if the Twins could find a way to deal Mauer, they might think about it. Mauer is 33 years of age with $46 million remaining on his contract over the next two years. And a change of scenery to a contending team could be just what the doctor ordered for Mauer to resurrect his career.
Sonny Gray-Starting Pitcher-Oakland Athletics
I would be extremely surprised to see starting pitcher Sonny Gray finish the 2016 Major League Baseball in an Oakland Athletics uniform. Gray was a first-round pick of the Athletics in 2011, and he has gone on to post a career record of 36-26 to go along with an earned run average of 3.18. The A’s currently find themselves with a record of 29-41 as they are 16 games behind the Texas Rangers for first place in the American League West which finds them in the basement of the division. Oakland is one of the smallest media markets in MLB and Athletics general manager Billy Beane is never one to shy away from making a trade that will restock the team’s minor league system.
Although that Gray is only 26-years of age, he is not scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent until 2020 which means that parting with him would give Beane the opportunity to load up on prospects.
Jay Bruce-Outfielder-Cincinnati Reds
With the Cincinnati Reds well on their way to a second consecutive 90-loss season, it is time for the team’s president of baseball operations Walt Jocketty to finish the fire sale that he began over the winter.
Jay Bruce has been a lifer with the Reds as he was the team’s first-round pick in 2005 which was the prelude to him finishing in the top five of the National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2008. Bruce is a three-time N.L. All-Star who would provide depth to any potential team that he is traded to, while he is also under contract through next season as he wouldn’t be a rental.
Rich Hill-Starting Pitcher-Oakland Athletics
Rich Hill is a 12-year Major League Baseball veteran that is on pace for the best season of his career. In 11 starts for the Oakland Athletics this year, Hill is 8-3 with an earned run average of 2.25 and 74 strikeouts. The A’s are Hill’s seventh MLB club, and there is a very good possibility that his bags will be packed soon as he is playing for a last place team, but more importantly he is a left-handed pitcher which is something that is always coveted at trade time. Hill only signed a one-year with the Athletics in the off-season which means that a trade for him wouldn’t see Oakland net that much in return as he would merely be a rental. Hill is currently on the disabled list with a groin injury; however as soon as he is healthy, expect the trade rumors around him to heat up.
Andrew Miller-Relief Pitcher-New York Yankees
With a record of 35-36, the New York Yankees will soon need to decide if they want to make a push for their 18th playoff appearance in the last 21 years, or do they want to become sellers before Major League Baseball’s trade deadline. And if the Yankees do decide to become sellers, relief pitcher Andrew Miller will draw a ton of interest.
Last year in Miller’s first season with the Yankees, he saved 36 games for the team. But this year Miller has been used in more of a setup role to relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman, however he has still be extremely effect with his earned run average of 1.21. At 6’7″, Miller has an intimidating presence on the mound, while his delivery as a left-handed pitcher can throw opposing batters off of their game.
Miller’s ability to be a setup guy and a closer, along with the fact that he’s under contract through 2018 would net the Yankees something in a trade, but I doubt that Miller would get shipped out of New York since the team relies on their bullpen more than other clubs.
Ryan Madson-Relief Pitcher-Oakland Athletics
After being out of baseball for three years, relief pitcher Ryan Madson was able to rediscover his groove last year in helping the Kansas City Royals win the World Series. With the Royals, Madson was primarily used as a setup man to closer Wade Davis. But when Madson signed with the Oakland Athletics over the off-season, he went back to being a closer.
Madson hasn’t had that many chances to close games this year for the Athletics as he only has 13 saves, but throughout his Major League Baseball career he has shown the ability to be both a closer and a setup man which increases his value on the trade market. And with the A’s out of playoff contention, along with the fact that Madson is under contract through 2018, there should be contenders that will be lining up to take him.
Alex Colome-Relief Pitcher-Tampa Bay Rays
Relief pitcher Alex Colome is in his fourth season with the Tampa Bay Rays, and after spending his first three seasons between the starting rotation and middle relief, he is now getting his crack at closing out games for the team. Colome is making the most out of his opportunity with the Rays as he is a perfect 19-for-19 in save chances this year. And as players in the Rays organization know that they won’t be there for the long haul, Colome is simply auditioning for his next big league employer.
Ryan Braun-Outfielder-Milwaukee Brewers
For all of the performance-enhancing drugs issues that have clouded the Major League Baseball career of Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun, he is still managing to put up solid numbers. Braun finds himself in the midst of one of his best all around years at the plate as he is batting .319 with 12 home runs and 38 runs batted in. The Brewers currently have a record of 31-40 which finds them way out of contention in the National League, and Braun could provide a contending team with a quality bat coming down the stretch.
Aroldis Chapman-Relief Pitcher-New York Yankees
There a flamethrowers and then there is New York Yankees relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman. After defecting from his native Cuba in 2009, Chapman signed with the Cincinnati Reds. And in six years with the Reds, Chapman saved 146 games. Over the off-season Chapman was traded to the New York Yankees where he has saved 13 games in 14 opportunities. Chapman can regularly hit 100 mph on the radar gun as his fastball at times is unhittable.
Chapman is in the last year of his contract, and with the Yankees currently possessing a losing record, it would be prudent for them to move him.
Yunel Escobaer-Third Baseman-Los Angeles Angels
After defecting from Cuba in 2004, third baseman Yunel Escobar found his way to Major League Baseball. Escobar was drafted by the Braves in 2005 and he has been a career journeyman. Escobar is currently playing for his fifth MLB team as he is a member of the Los Angeles Angels. Escobar is currently batting .309 with 17 doubles, while he can also provide a contending team with a quality glove at third base.
X-Chicago Cubs 95-67 (1)
2015 was a magical year for the Chicago Cubs as they became the talk of Major League Baseball. Under the watch of manager Joe Maddon, the young Cubs exceeded many expectations as they won 97 games in the regular season while they also won their first playoff series since 2003. But in the National League Championship Series, the power bats of the Cubs were shut down by the dominant starting pitching of the New York Mets. And although that the Cubs are still one of the younger teams in MLB, they feel that that they have everything in place to win the World Series for the first time since 1908.
Last season the Cubs had one of the top power lineups in the National League as they were fifth in home runs with 171 and the long ball will once again be en vogue for the North Siders. Aside from being the starting corner infielders for the Cubs, first baseman Anthony Rizzo and third baseman Kris Bryant have become the cornerstones of this lineup. Last season Rizzo and Bryant combined to hit 57 home runs with Bryant being named as the NL Rookie of the Year. Bryant did this in spite of missing the first few weeks of the 2015 Major League Baseball season as the Cubs held him back in the minors, but this combination gives Chicago one of the best three-four tandems in baseball. And what makes it even scarier is that Rizzo is only 26-years of age while Bryant is just 23.
Aside from Bryant and Rizzo, the Cubs have more young talent in their lineup with the likes of second baseman Addison Russell and catcher/outfielder Kyle Schwarber. Schwarber is a catcher by trade, but his power bat made it tough for Maddon to take him out of the lineup as he hit 16 home runs in just 69 games. With Miguel Montero and David Ross splitting time at catcher for the Cubs, Schwarber was put in left field which was a train wreck for the Cubs as he was new to the position and he quickly became a defensive liability which really showed up when they lost to the Mets in the National League Championship Series. This season however, you can expect to see Schwarber start games for the Cubs, but he will definitely be pulled in favor of a better defender in late-inning situations.
But the already potent Cubs lineup added some pop this off-season with the addition of second baseman Ben Zobrist and outfielder Jason Heyward. After helping the Kansas City Royals win the World Series last October, Zobrist joined the Cubs as a free agent when both parties agreed on a four-year, $56 million deal in December. Zobrist is an Illinois native while he played under Maddon with the Tampa Bay Rays which included the franchise’s only American League Pennant in 2008. Zobrist will primarily be used at second base, but he is utility player that can play all three outfield positions along with most positions on the infield. At the plate Zobrist is a contact hitter that has a career on-base percentage of .355 while he his also one of the toughest players to strike out in baseball.
The rich got richer when the Cubs were able to lure Heyward to the Windy City. Heyward spent the first five years of his Major League Baseball career with the Atlanta Braves where he finished second in the National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2010. Last year Heyward was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals and he appeared to fit in there. But even though that the Cardinals offered Heyward more money in free agency, he decided to join the Cubs which should add more fuel to one of the oldest MLB rivalries. What Heyward gives the Cubs is a solid defender in right field as he is a three-time NL Gold Glove winner while he provides even more depth in their lineup.
As good as the Cubs lineup can be, their starting pitching staff isn’t that shabby either. Last year Cubs team earned run average of 3.36 was third in the National League as they were led by starting pitcher Jake Arrieta. Arrieta had a breakout season in 2015 as he won 22 games to become the first Cubs pitcher since Greg Maddux in 1992 to be named as the National League Cy Young Award winner. Over the second half of the 2015 Major League Baseball season, Arrieta was unhittable as he finished the year with an earned run average of 1.77 and you just have to wonder if he’ll be able to do it again. Behind Arrieta, the Cubs have veteran starting pitchers in John Lackey and Jon Lester as their postseason experience should pay dividends for the North Siders in crucial situations.
The Cubs will begin the 2016 Major League Baseball season on the West Coast with a three-game set against the Los Angeles Angels which will be followed by a four-game trip to the desert where they’ll face the Arizona Diamondbacks. And even in the Cubs don’t get off to a fast start, this is a team that has been constructed by president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer that has the look of a contender for a very long time.
Y-Pittsburgh Pirates 89-73 (4)
The last three Major League Baseball seasons have seen the Pittsburgh Pirates be one of the better teams in the league, but success in the postseason has eluded them. The Pirates have been unable to win the National League Central as they’ve been unable to get over the hump in the division that is the St. Louis Cardinals. And now the Bucs find themselves sandwiched in the NL Central between the veteran Cardinals and the upstart Chicago Cubs, which has led to them getting overlooked somewhat in Western Pennsylvania. The Pirates are coming off of their best regular season since 1991 as they won 98 games, but they couldn’t win the NL Central due to the fact that the Cards won 100 games. The Pirates then hosted the NL Wild Card Game which they lost for a second consecutive year as it was the Cubs that ended their season. And as the 2016 MLB season is right around the corner, you can expect the Pirates to have a bad taste in their mouths.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle can be viewed as miracle worker as he has changed the culture in Pittsburgh during his five years there. Prior to Hurdle’s arrival in 2011, the Pirates had not had a winning season since 1992. But now the Pirates are a team that expects to contend for the World Series every year which can also be attributed to the fact that team general manager Neal Huntington has done a good job in giving Hurdle the talent on the field that can produce a winner.
Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen got off to a slow start in 2015 which also hurt Pittsburgh in the standings, but he still rallied to bat .296 with 23 home runs and 96 runs batted in. McCutchen is a former National League MVP and you can expect him to once again be in the conversation for the award in 2016. In seven years with the Pirates, McCutchen has undoubtedly become the face of the franchise. McCutchen is currently 14th on the Pirates all-time WAR list at 38, and a solid campaign in 2016 could see him surpass legends such as Ralph Kiner in the category.
Aside from McCutchen, the Pirates have some young talent in their outfield in Gregor Polanco and Starling Marte. Marte is coming off of winning a Gold Glove Award for the first time in his career and he could be a player that might flirt with being an All-Star this year. Like Marte, Polanco is a solid defender, but he is a player that must develop more plate discipline as he struck out 121 times last year.
The Pirates felt that they were not going to be able to sign second baseman Neil Walker to a long-term deal and thus they traded him over the winter to the New York Mets in exchange for starting pitcher Jon Niese. Walker was a solid all-around player for the Pirates, but the team was ready to move on as they have faith in their middle infielders consisting of Sean Rodriguez, Jung-ho Kang, and Jordy Mercer to get the job done up the middle.
The Pirates enjoyed the second best team earned run average in the National League and they’ll need more of the same in 2016 if they expect to be a contender. Starting pitcher Gerrit Cole is set to embark on his fourth Major League Baseball season and he’s showing all of the promise the made him the first overall pick of the draft in 2011. Cole is coming off a 19-win season and he has given Pittsburgh a bona fide ace for the first time since the days of Doug Drabek. Behind Cole in the Pirates starting rotation, there will be a veteran presence with Francisco Liriano, Ryan Vogelson, and Niese while relief pitcher Mark Melancon is looking to follow up his stellar 2015 campaign as he set a single-season franchise record in saves with 51.
The Pirates will begin the 2016 Major League Baseball season against their nemesis in the Cardinals. And if Pittsburgh is able to handle their business against the Cards, it could set the tone for them for the entire campaign.
Y-St. Louis Cardinals 88-74 (5)
In 2015, the St. Louis Cardinals won 100 games, but when the postseason rolled around, they didn’t have the feel of a dominant team as the injuries that they were able to overcome in the regular season finally caught up to them in playoffs where they lost to the Chicago Cubs in the National League Divisional Series. And whereas the NL Central could once again be the toughest division in Major League Baseball in 2016, the Cardinals don’t want to get lost in the shuffle behind the Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates.
Since 2000, the Cardinals have only had one losing season and over that stretch they’ve won a pair of World Series Championships. One player that has been with the Cards for a good portion of that success has been catcher Yadier Molina. Molina has been the Cardinals starting catcher since 2004 and he’s developed into one of the best catchers in Major League Baseball as he is a defensive wizard behind the plate while also making the lives of his starting pitchers easier due to his ability to call games. But late in the 2015 MLB season, Molina suffered a thumb injury late in the regular season that limited his effectiveness along with hindering the chances for St. Louis to be successful in the postseason. Molina has undergone several thumb procedures which could see him miss the start of the 2016 MLB season as he recovers. And if Molina isn’t ready to go at the start of the season, it will put the Cardinals in a bind.
Last off-season, the Cardinals acquired outfielder Jason Heyward from the Atlanta Braves in hopes that he would fit right into their lineup. Heyward was able to do that as he led the team in batting average (.293), and hits (160). The Cards knew the risk that they were running in acquiring Heyward due to the fact that he was set to become an unrestricted free agent last October. And after one season with the Cardinals, Heyward bolted in free agency to sign with Cubs.
Individually, the Cardinals lineup might not be that attractive to the casual fan, but as a team they are one of the most cohesive units in baseball which is due to their never say die attitude. Led by infielders Matt Carpenter, Kolten Wong, and Jhonny Peralta, the Cardinals have a team that is full of clutch hitters. And even though that the Cards might not possess one of the top offenses in baseball, you can never count them out until the final out is made.
The same can be said for the Cardinals pitching staff that is full of professionals in starting pitchers Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, and Lance Lynn. Wainwright missed the majority of 2015 after he ruptured his Achilles tendon, and even at the age of 34, he is player that you never want to count out as he displays nothing but grit every time that he takes the mound. Also returning to the Cardinals rotation after an injury is starting pitcher Carlos Martinez. Last year was Martinez’s first season as a starter and he was cruising until a shoulder injury in September abruptly put him on the shelf. But being that Martinez didn’t require any off-season surgery, St. Louis is hopeful that the youngster will be ready to bounce back. In Wainwright’s absence last year, Wacha emerged as the new ace in St. Louis as he led the club in wins with 17. However in three years with the Cardinals, Wacha has yet to throw 200 innings in a season and you have to wonder if the youngster will run out of gas during the stretch run. After losing starting pitcher Jon Lackey in free agency to the Cubs, the Cards were able to sign starting pitcher Mike Leake. The Cardinals are very familiar with Leake due to his time with the Cincinnati Reds and he should become a solid contributor in St. Louis at the back of the rotation.Last season relief pitcher Trevor Rosenthal saved 48 games for St. Louis which was second in the National League and you can expect Cardinals manager Mike Matheny to once again rely on his rubber arm.
The Cardinals might lack star appeal in 2016, but as always this is a team that you never want to count out.
Cincinnati Reds 65-97
After qualifying for the postseason three times from 2010-2013, the Cincinnati Reds have fallen on hard times and they are now in full rebuilding mode. The Reds are coming off of their worst season since 1937 and they appear to have already waived the white flag for 2016. This off-season has seen the Reds trade All-Star third baseman Todd Frazier to the Chicago White Sox and All-Star relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman to the New York Yankees. And to makes matters worse is that the Reds parted with both players while not getting any quality players back in return which doesn’t leave that much optimism for the folks in Southern Ohio.
There are some people around that wanted to see the Reds part with manager Bryan Price as well, but to his credit he has been dealt a very tough hand as in his two years with Cincinnati, the team has been hit hard with injuries. And now Price will be tasked with turning water into wine for the Reds in 2016.
For the Reds they still have first baseman Joey Votto in the middle of their lineup. Votto is a former National League MVP, and along with having a career on-base percentage of .423, he is a professional hitter. But at this rate I doubt that Votto will finish the year in Reds uniform as a contender could be willing to take him and his contract off of Cincinnati’s hands.
Along with Votto, second baseman Brandon Phillips is a player that does give the Reds the presence of a veteran in their lineup, but as Cincinnati appears to be in the midst of a fire sale, I doubt that he will be with the club by the August 1, trade deadline.
Last year saw the Reds have one of the worst pitching staffs in the National League and that could once again be the case this year as Anthony DeScalfani is the only starting pitcher returning to the team that won at least 9 games in 2015 as the Cincinnati bullpen will be busy this season.
With the Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh Pirates, and St. Louis Cardinals expected to run things in the National League Central this year, the Reds could get lost in the shuffle rather quickly. And by season’s end, Cincinnati could have the look of a glorified minor-league team.
Milwaukee Brewers 62-100
2015 wasn’t a good one for the Milwaukee Brewers and the upcoming Major League Baseball season could be a very difficult one for them as well. The Brewers lost 94 games last season while also going through two managers as they are attempting to regain their form and once again become a contender in the National League Central. But the main problem with the Brewers right now is the fact that they simply don’t have that much talent which will find them fighting an uphill battle in the NL Central behind the Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals, and Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Brewers pitching staff struggled mightily last season as they were 11th in the National League in earned run average (4.28), and 14th in quality starts (63). And Milwaukee only had one starting pitcher (Jimmy Nelson) that won at least 10 games last season. Nelson was also the only starting pitcher for the Brewers to make at least 30 starts last season as this is a team that is desperate for more depth in their rotation. For Brewers manager Craig Counsell and pitching coach Derek Johnson, they are hopeful that Nelson’s career is on the upswing while also being optimistic that veteran starting pitcher Matt Garza will be able to find the fountain of youth in order to help Milwaukee stay in contention this summer.
Like the Brewers pitching staff, the lineup isn’t loaded with that much talent which could make veterans such as outfielder Ryan Braun and catcher Jonathan Lucroy expendable on the trade market as Milwaukee looks to get younger and rebuild.
For Counsell, he can only hope that the Brewers don’t fall out of contention early in the National League Central which would make an already difficult job that much tougher.
Scott Kazmir-Starting Pitcher-Oakland Athletics
After winning 88 games last season, things haven’t got started on the right foot this season for the Oakland Athletics who currently have the worst in Major League Baseball. The Athletics could be ready to wave the white flag and with that it might be time for them to make some deals.
A’s starting pitcher Scott Kazmir had a strong 2014 MLB season as he won 15 games for the first time in his career. In 8 starts this season, Kazmir is 2-2 with an earned run average of 3.08. Kazmir provides a quality left-handed arm and if the Athletics would be willing to trade him, he would just be a rental as he is set to become a free agent after the season.
Tyler Clippard-Relief Pitcher-Oakland Athletics
The Oakland Athletics acquired relief pitcher Tyler Clippard from the Washington Nationals this past off-season in the hopes of having him close out games in the ninth inning for them. But being that the Athletics currently have the worst record in Major League Baseball, Clippard hasn’t had that many chances to save ball games. And when teams are pushing for a postseason spot, you can never have enough quality arms coming out of the bullpen. Clippard is a two-time MLB All-Star that is versatile as he can be a long reliever, setup guy, and a closer coming out of the bullpen.
Martin Prado-Utility Man-Miami Marlins
Earlier this week the Miami Marlins parted ways with manager Mike Redmond and he was replaced by general manager Dan Jennings. The Marlins have lost their last eight games and they are in last place in the National League East. Martin Prado primarily plays third base for the Marlins, but he can play second base and first base along with both corner outfield positions. So far this season at the plate, Prado is batting .267 with a pair of home runs and 15 runs batted in and he could provide tremendous depth to team that is in contention.
Francisco Rodriguez-Relief Pitcher-Milwaukee Brewers
Relief pitcher Francisco Rodriguez saved 44 games in 2014 for the Milwaukee Brewers. But with the Brewers currently being in the basement of the National League Central, Rodriguez might not have as many chances to close ball games in 2015. Rodriguez is under contract through 2016 with a $6 million team option for 2017. And just like I mentioned with Clippard, you can never have enough arms coming out of the bullpen.
After winning 82 games last year there was optimism for the Milwaukee Bucks heading into the 2015 Major League Baseball season. But that optimism for the Brew Crew has faded rather quickly. The Brewers have stumbled out of the gates with a record of 2-13 which is also currently the worst record in MLB. The Brewers have already been outscored by 47 runs this season and they have already fallen behind the pack in the National League Central as they are seven games behind the first place St. Louis Cardinals.
Things didn’t get started on the right foot for the Brewers as they were swept by the Colorado Rockies to begin the season. And Milwaukee hasn’t won a game since they defeated the Cardinals last Monday. Brewers manager Ron Roenicke attempted to change things this past Tuesday night when he had the team don their batting practice jerseys during the game. But the move didn’t pay off for the Brewers as they fell to the Cincinnati Reds 16-10. The Brewers starting pitching staff has a team earned run average of 5.08 which is at the bottom of the National League. The Brewers starting pitchers only have two quality starts and opponents are batting .280 against them. In this past Wednesday’s loss to the Reds, the Brewers gave up a pair of grand slams. Already the Brewers have had three games in which they have surrendered at least 10 runs and the month of April hasn’t even finished.
Brewers general manager Doug Melvin traded starting pitcher Yovani Gallardo to the Texas Rangers over the winter. And even though Gallardo wasn’t coming off of his best season, he was still one of the Brewers better starting pitchers. Unfortunately for Milwaukee, Brewers starting pitcher Kyle Lohse set the wrong tone for this team on Opening Day as he gave up 8 earned runs in just 3.1 innings pitched in a 10-0 loss to the Colorado Rockies.
The Brewers offense which has always been the backbone of this franchise hasn’t done that much better as they are last in the National League in on-base percentage (.260), 14th in runs scored (42), batting averaging (.212), and hits (105) as shortstop Jean Segura is the only everyday player that is currently sporting a batting average near .300 as he is batting .291. Injuries and suspensions for performance-enhancing drugs have diminished Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun to a less than average player as he’s only batting .240 and it would be surprising if he went yard 20 times this season. Brewers third baseman Aramis Ramirez has already let it be known that this will be his final MLB season and at the age of 37, he is no longer the threat to be a power hitter that he once was. The past few seasons have seen outfielder Carlos Gomez turn into the Brewers best everyday player, but he is currently on the 15-day disabled list as he is recovering from a hamstring injury.
For the Brewers right now it is more than just weathering the storm at the early part of the season. The NL Central is expected to be more competitive this season with the Reds and Chicago Cubs showing signs of improvement. I have already pegged the Cards to win the World Series which means that the Brewers will be swimming upstream all season long. It’s still early, but Melvin should strongly consider to process of parting with as many viable trade assets as possible. However with the Brewers slow start, their players haven’t displayed that much that could be appealing to other teams on the trade market which will make for a long summer in Milwaukee. The one thing that the sports fans of Wisconsin will be looking forward to is when the Green Bay Packers open training camp over the summer.