MLB Preview: after offseason of spending, storylines set

The Atlanta Braves’ Ronald Acuna Jr. bats in a game last season. The electric outfielder hit .293 with 26 home runs in 111 appearances, winning Rookie of the Year. The Braves need more than just another strong year from Acuna if they hope to compete for the NL East. Courtesy of Thomson200 via Wikimedia Commons,

One of the interesting components of Vassar’s long spring break is that it picks us up in the late winter of March and drops us off with just six weeks left of school, at the beginning of spring. Not yet adjusted to Poughkeepsie’s arctic climate, this pick-me-up is a welcome bridge to what is my favorite season. Spring brings warmth, a return home and the elating sensation of anticipation.

Greener pastures are the promise of every new sports season. That baseball begins in spring lends itself to one of America’s greatest metaphors, as Ken Burns quipped: “It follows the seasons, beginning each year with the fond expectancy of springtime and ending with the hard facts of autumn.”

As every other year, this spring brings fresh hopes to 30 MLB teams. An American League powerhouse is poised for repetition of last year’s success, but promising teams are budding with young talent from every corner of the league. Notable superstars cashed in with record deals, but some stars remain unsigned as Opening Day looms.

Outfielder Mike Trout signed a massive contract extension for the Los Angeles Angels during the offseason. His deal, $430 million over 12 years, is far and away the largest deal in the league’s history. Despite Trout’s pedigree, he has yet to win a playoff game.
Courtesy of Keith Allison via Wikimedia Commons.

Mercurial stars find long-term homes:

Mike Trout entered the league the same year as two other big earners this winter: Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. Both signed lucrative deals, with the San Diego Padres and Philadelphia Phillies, respectively. For the Padres, this isn’t the first big free agent landing in recent memory. In the winter of 2014-15, the team virtually rebuilt their roster with a slew of acquisitions that included Craig Kimbrel, James Shields, Justin Upton and Matt Kemp. For their investments, they haven’t done better than fourth in the NL West. Machado, however, is a game changer, and this time they didn’t have to trade away any key prospects (like Yasmani Grandal in 2015) to acquire him. Machado is the type of talent that can transform a franchise and energize a fan base. His talent is obvious, as he posted his best season last year (11th in position player Wins Above Replacement [WAR], which measures a player’s value above a statistically generic replacement) while dogged by rumors and trade talks. Still, $300 million for ten years and a no-trade clause isn’t bad for a guy that said, “I’m not the type of player that’s going to be ‘Johnny Hustle.’”

Harper didn’t have to go far to find a new team. He’s staying in the NL East for the next decade and a half. Just before Trout signed his $430 million monstrosity, the Phillies signed the outfielder to the what was then the richest contract in team sports history: thirteen years for $330 million. Signing Harper was the keystone acquisition that completed the Phillies’ season. They added catcher JT Realmuto, former MVP Andrew McCutchen and former All-Star shortstop Jean Segura. The Phillies are poised to take a giant leap from their 80-82 record last year.

Which leads us to the NL East:

Since 2011, only one NL East team has survived the National League Divisional Series. That team was the Mets, who did so in 2015 en route to a World Series loss to the Kansas City Royals. In 2019, the Mets acquired Robinson Cano, a stud outfielder with time left on his contract, from the Mariners. They also brought in elite 25-year-old closer Edwin Diaz, who won’t be a free agent until 2023. That’s the extent of their notable acquisitions. But another year with a rotation of Zack Wheeler, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz and Noah Syndergaard will make them as imposing as ever.

With their aforementioned smorgasbord of acquisitions, the Phillies are favored to come out on top in the East. Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta are elite returners to the starting rotation. Nola was a Cy Young contender last year, and Arrieta had knee surgery to alleviate pain that dogged him throughout the campaign. The rest of their reliever staff is formidable as well. The Phillies began the season competing for the pennant but sputtered down the last couple months of the season. A wealth of talent should keep that from happening this year.

The Atlanta Braves were last season’s biggest surprise. In 2015 they forced a fire sale of All-Stars and veterans after years of middling playoff success. Several years followed without touching the playoffs. Quietly, they were assembling a gauntlet of elite, young talent. While their farm system is now ranked second, the big league club already saw positives in 2018. Outfielders Ender Inciarte and Nick Markakis proved more than solid defensively and Freddie Freeman subtly put together an MVP-type season, but the story was in their young hitters. Ozzie Albies had a breakout year, but Ronald Acuna Jr. enjoyed the type of rookie year that hinted a NL MVP trophy may shortly follow his Rookie of the Year award. The young stars’ breakout season was enough to claim the NL East pennant for the first time since 2013. The Braves’ weak bullpen is what held them back from more success. Their farm system, however, is saturated with so much arm talent they will undoubtedly be able to begin filling in the gaps quickly.

On the Nationals’ end of the Bryce Harper signing, the situation is murky. While they will miss the former MVP and his six all-star appearances before the age of 27, they will not miss his inconsistent attitude and high strikeout rate. He struck out 169 times last year, completing a five-year streak of 100plus strikeout seasons. The Nats may have young stars in Juan Soto and Victor Robles to fill Harper’s place in the outfield; Soto was good for 22 homers and 70 RBI in 2018 and made a very solid case for rookie of the year. Finally, pitching is where the Nationals have the most talent. Stephen Strasburg should mount a strong comeback season after going 10-7 last year and Max Scherzer has three Cy Youngs already in his short time in Washington. He may need to add another if the Nationals want to conquer the NL East.

As for the Marlins, they traded their last good player to the Phillies. There’s not much else going on there.

Bryce Harper and Manny Machado chat during a 2015 game, when they played for the Nationals and Orioles, respectively. This offseason, Harper signed a 13-year, $330 million deal with the Phillies, and Machado signed for 10 years, $300 million with the Padres.
Courtesy of Keith Allison via Flickr.

In the vacuum of play, money talks take center stage:

In the year 2030 (yes, really. 2030.) Mike Trout will become an unrestricted free agent. That’s the year that his unprecedented 12-year, $430 million contract extension with the Los Angeles Angels expires. The twotime MVP has led the American League in WAR nearly every year since his sophomore season, and boasts the fourth highest batting average among active players. These stats make his contract, which equates to about $35 million per year, appear somewhat of a bargain for the Angels (The Ringer, “Mike Trout’s $430 Million Contract,” 03.19.2019). In theory, however, the lengthy contract is a risky move. Trout could have earned upwards of $500 million in free agency, and in all his time with the Angels, he has not won one playoff game.

Some stars remained home. In the pitching department, Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel are yet to find teams the week of opening day. Kimbrel is one of the most dominant relievers of his era. While he hasn’t been the record-breaking closer of his youth in Atlanta, he is still elite, and he finished last season with a World Series victory as a member of the Red Sox. Keuchel is a Cy Young winner, three years removed. His production was down last season, but the greatest obstacle in his way is that he is barely on the wrong side of 30, an increasingly dangerous place to be for MLB players.

Even players that did find teams were undervalued. At 33, Adam Jones signed a oneyear deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks after no one else stepped forward. Yasmani Grandal, one of the best catchers in the world, also only got a one-year deal. He’s just 30—young in real people years, but a dinosaur in baseball years, it seems.

Play ball:

After a two-game exhibition series between the Athletics and Mariners in Japan last week, the season begins for the other 28 teams on Mar. 28.

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