Busy offseason gives each club something to look forward to
By Doug Miller
It was a rough weekend for the Major League markets of Minnesota, Cincinnati, Houston and Washington. The early playoff exits by the Vikings, Bengals, Texans and Redskins now have NFL fans in those regions ready to give up on winter altogether.
So in spite of those gridiron grievances, there's good news in the week ahead for those sports fans and many others all across the country. Next Sunday is Jan. 18, which is exactly one month until that magical day when pitchers and catchers first report to Spring Training.
It's never too early to dream about how great it will be in just over four weeks when baseball is officially back. So with that in mind, here's one reason for each of the 30 fan bases of the Major Leagues to get excited about what's coming in just one month's time on the fields of the Cactus League and the Grapefruit League.
Kansas City Royals: Let's start with the current kings of the sport and the return of one of their most regal players, Alex Gordon. The veteran left fielder agreed to a four-year deal to come back to the only team he's played for, which also happens to be the defending World Series champion.
New York Mets: As New York proved in 2015, it's all about the arms, and as good as the trio of Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard was last year, Mets fans will be even giddier when righty Zack Wheeler, who had Tommy John surgery in March, joins the rotation.
Toronto Blue Jays: It's got to be the whole offense, of course. There's no hitting team like the Blue Jays, and the core of that murderer's row is back for more mashing, with what could be a better bullpen to make the wins stand up.
Chicago Cubs: A blazing offseason of purpose. The Cubs were swept by the Mets in the National League Championship Series, but they quickly and decisively acted to fill in their holes. Signing Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey to go along with their brilliant young core was a good way to heat up those cold Chicago days.
Texas Rangers: A new year, a new Yu. Right-handed ace Yu Darvish missed the entire 2015 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery and his team still won the American League West and took the Blue Jays to the limit in the AL Division Series. He'll be back in 2016. That's not good for the rest of the division.
Los Angeles Dodgers: The same thing as always: Clayton Kershaw, who's simply the best pitcher in baseball, will anchor another strong rotation, which should get better and deeper when Brandon McCarthy returns from elbow surgery.
Houston Astros: Experience. The Astros got it in their crushing five-game loss in the ALDS to the Royals, but they're a year older and wiser for the effort and come into Spring Training still teeming with young talent, including AL Rookie of the Year Award winner Carlos Correa, who will be playing his first full big league season.
St. Louis Cardinals: A full, healthy year of Adam Wainwright. The Cardinals were robbed of it last year and still won the NL Central. Getting a rejuvenated Wainwright will help ease the sting of Lance Lynn's injury and will beef up a deep rotation.
Pittsburgh Pirates: A driven team and a driven outfield. The Pirates have made the playoffs in three consecutive seasons and haven't gotten past the NLDS. But more seasoning from Gregory Polanco to match the burgeoning stardom of Starling Marte and the perennial NL MVP Award contention from Andrew McCutchen could get Pittsburgh further into October.
Los Angeles Angels: Tough call? Not really. It's Mike Trout. The Angels were in the playoff race until late in 2015 and could contend once again in '16. No matter how the Halos do in the standings, it's worth buying a ticket to their games just to see the best all-around player in the AL in his prime.
San Francisco Giants: It's an even year again. The Giants have won the past three World Series in such seasons (2010, '12 and '14), and their acquisition of Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija for the pitching rotation plus Denard Span for the outfield means they mean business in 2016.
Minnesota Twins: A full year of Miguel Sano. The 6-foot-4, 260-pound rookie slugger showed elite talent with a .916 OPS and 18 home runs in 279 at-bats for a surprising Twins club that zoomed back into contention. Barring injury, he has a full year to prove what he can do.
Washington Nationals: The much-anticipated encore of Bryce Harper, of course. How will the reigning NL MVP Award winner follow up what was a truly historic statistical season (42 homers, 1.109 OPS, 118 runs, 99 RBIs) for a player of his age? They can't wait to find out in our nation's capital.
Baltimore Orioles: A healthy Matt Wieters. The All-Star and Gold Glove catcher was off to a fantastic start in 2014 before having Tommy John surgery, and last season's return was slow and steady, but not without its obstacles. Wieters took the team's qualifying offer and has something to prove in '16.
Cleveland Indians: A full year of Francisco Lindor. The dynamic 22-year-old shortstop arrived on the Major League scene last June 14 but did enough (.313/.353/.482, 12 homers, 12 stolen bases) to come very close to Correa in the balloting for the AL Rookie of the Year Award.
Tampa Bay Rays: Another chance to watch the man many consider the best defensive player in the Major Leagues. Center fielder Kevin Kiermaier won his first Gold Glove in 2015 and has his sights set on saving a lot more runs for a talented young team with a shot at contending in what should once again be a wide-open AL East.
Arizona Diamondbacks: The revamped rotation. Arizona parted with a lot of money by signing Zack Greinke and said goodbye to plenty of potential in trading for Shelby Miller. That sounds a lot like a team that's going all-in on the pitching side of things, which could shake up the NL West even more.
Boston Red Sox:David Price. The Red Sox were in need of that dependable ace all year long in a trying 2015, and they got him on the open market in the offseason. Now the veteran lefty heads up a rotation that needs to keep Boston in games long enough for a talented group of young hitters (Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Blake Swihart and more) to come of age alongside stalwarts such as David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia.
Seattle Mariners: A new plan in motion. The front office overhaul that brought in general manager Jerry Dipoto and field manager Scott Servais has created a much different roster. A renewed focus on run prevention and on-base percentage could yield serious fruit if Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager get a lot of at-bats with runners in scoring position.
Chicago White Sox: The Toddfather, Part 2. The White Sox swung a big offseason swap for beloved Reds third baseman Todd Frazier, and the slugger has a chance to help Chicago make a move in the tough AL Central.
Detroit Tigers: The return of Justin Verlander. The right-hander, who used to be a perennial AL MVP Award and AL Cy Young Award contender, came back from injury woes to post a 2.80 ERA in the second half of 2015. If he builds off that momentum and reclaims his position as the team's unquestioned ace, it could be a very good year in Motown.
San Diego Padres:Tyson Ross. The big right-hander is quietly emerging as one of the best-kept secrets in the NL. Ross struck out 212 batters in 196 innings last season and made a career-best 33 starts. If he cuts down on the walks he could become one of the game's elite.
Miami Marlins: OK, we'll cheat a bit here. Two things: Jose Fernandez and Giancarlo Stanton. Neither star player got anything close to a full, healthy 2015, but both should be back for '16. And if they play to their potential, Miami will have one of the best starters and best hitters in the NL.
Oakland Athletics: The continuing maturation of Sonny Gray. The young A's right-hander was an AL Cy Young Award finalist, and the trajectory of his career keeps trending upward.
Milwaukee Brewers: A young, energetic team running the show. New general manager David Stearns and manager Craig Counsell have taken the helm for a rebuild project that will start from within. It could mean an eventual 2016 big league debut for highly touted prospect Orlando Arcia.
Colorado Rockies:Nolan Arenado. He's homegrown, he'll be 25 in April, he's charismatic, he hit 42 homers last year and drove in 130 runs while still leaving plenty of room for improvement in plate discipline, and, oh yeah … he's one of the best third baseman in the Majors.
Atlanta Braves: The future. Watching the development of a system full of intriguing prospects, including the top four ranked by MLB.com (shortstop Dansby Swanson, left-handed pitcher Sean Newcomb, shortstop Ozzie Albies and right-hander Aaron Blair), will be an exciting way to begin the spring as the club continues to look for ways to reinvigorate the roster.
Cincinnati Reds: New, exciting players to root for. Last year's Cueto and Mike Leake trades and the recent Chapman deal have netted the Reds prospects including pitchers Brandon Finnegan and John Lamb, a possible big league bat in Adam Duvall and the arm that might be the prize of them all, lefty Cody Reed. Third baseman Eric Jagielo and pitcher Rookie Davis have a chance to make an impact, too.