Cardinals vs. Pirates (1pm ET Sunday, ESPN)
Hello, old friend!
The 2016 Major League Baseball season kicks off with a showdown between a pair of division rivals, who were also the two winningest teams in all of baseball last year: the 100-62 St. Louis Cardinals and the 98-win Pittsburgh Pirates.
After an unfortunate defeat at the hands of the upstart Cubbies in the NLDS, the Cards had a frustrating off-season, losing free agent outfielder Jason Heyward and pitcher John Lackey to the very same Cubbies. The Cards look to replace Lackey with Mike Leake, who’s nine years younger and a little bit cheaper, but still likely a downgrade, and Heyward with Stephen Piscotty, who hopes to build on an impressive rookie year in which he posted a 129 OPS+ in 256 plate appearances, though he benefitted from a .372 BABIP. Randal Grichuk takes over in center, a year after mashing 17 home runs in just 350 PA while the bullpen has added four guys who’ve all been closers. Perhaps most importantly, the Redbirds welcome back ace and Opening Day starter Adam Wainwright, who made only four starts last season before rupturing his achilles. Wainwright is unlikely to return to his 2009-14 form when he averaged 18 wins and was four times among the top three vote getters in the Cy Young balloting, but he’s the Cards’ best starter until Michael Wacha or Carlos Martinez prove otherwise.
The Pirates last year endured a brutal end to a glorious season, losing stud 2B Jung Ho Kang to a takeout slide in mid-September, and then losing 4-0 to the Cubs in the Wild Card game, as Chicago starter Jake Arrieta threw a 5-hit shutout, striking out 11. The Pirates have added Jonathon Niese and Ryan Vogelsong to a rotation that allowed the third-fewest runs in the NL last year. Michael Morse moves to first base full time, replacing the stone glove of dearly departed Pedro Alvarez, who last year committed 23 errors. Kang is expected to return as early as April, a month or two ahead of schedule, at which time he’ll move to 3B and super-sub Josh Harrison will take over second base from Neil Walker, who was sent to the Mets in the Niese trade. Given the mix-and-match nature of the Pirates’ infield last season, all of these positional assignments are subject to change. One minor concern for Pittsburgh is the health of ace Gerrit Cole, who dealt with a minor rib inflammation earlier this spring, but is expected to be fine. In an effort to limit Cole’s early-season innings, Francisco Liriano will make his third consecutive Opening Day start for the Bucs. Liriano went 12-7 last season, striking out 205 in 186.2 innings, while posting a 3.38 ERA.
Blue Jays vs. Rays (4pm ET Sunday, ESPN2)
After winning one of the most dramatic, WTF, crazypants, bananas playoff games of recent memory over the Texas Rangers, the Blue Jays saw their season end in the ALCS as they ran into the eventual champions, the Kansas City Royals, losing the series four games to two. The Blue Jays season didn’t really take off until after mid-seasons trades for Troy Tulowitzki and David Price, whereupon they went on a 43-16 tear that saw them run away with the AL East. They’ve lost David Price via free agency to their division rivals in Boston and Mark Buehrle to retirement, leaving Toronto with a lot of innings to replace with Marcus Stroman and JA Happ tabbed to fill the void. Toronto had the best offense in baseball last year and it appears it could be even better in 2016 as they’ll get a full season from Tulo at short, Chris Colabello will take over full-time from Justin Smoak, and Matt Saunders will step in for Ben Revere, who was shipped off for reliever Drew Storen, who looks to shore up bullpen. Marcus Stroman gets the Opening Day start, just weeks before his 25th birthday, coming off a season in which he pitched just 27 innings after coming back from a torn ACL.
Don’t look now, but the Tampa Bay Rays are projected by some to be one of the elite teams in the American League this season. Last year, Tampa started the season 40-30 and were tied for first place as late as June 30, but finished just 80-82 as their pitching went further south than for which the improved offense could atone. Starter Nate Karns lost his mojo following a Fourth of July no-decision, posting a 4.59 ERA over his final 49 innings, and Matt Moore came back July 2 from injury, posting a 5.43 ERA in 12 starts. Overall, the pitching staff’s ERA jumped from 3.30 in the first 70 games to 4.07 over the final 92. But, Alex Cobb’s midseason return from Tommy John surgery should help. As for the offense, well, it’s a mystery where the runs will come from, as Logan Forsythe seems like a real good candidate to regress to the mean; Evan Longoria is on the wrong side of 30 with his best days behind him; Corey Dickerson’s career OPS away from Coors is .695; James Loney’s batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage have been trending downwards; and then there’s the defense anchored by Kevin Kiermaier, who according to the stat heads, won five games with his glove last season. Defensive stats are super noisy and inconsistent, but if Kiermaier were to post just 3.5 dWAR this year, it would be the greatest age 24-26 run of defense in the game’s history with Brooks Robinson as the only player ever to post 4+ dWAR in consecutive seasons. Kiermaier’s great, no doubt, but there’s every reason to think his glove will fall well short of the impact it had in 2015.
Chris Archer, again, gets the Opening Day start for the Rays, coming off a brilliant season in which he posted a 3.23 ERA with 252 strikeouts over 212 innings. He only had 12 wins to show for it last season as there were 10 games in which he allowed two or fewer runs, but took a loss or got a no decision.
Mets vs. Royals (8:30pm ET Sunday, ESPN)
It’s a World Series rematch of not just the teams involved, but the starting pitchers of the fifth and final game.
No doubt still smarting from a 4-1 World Series defeat at the hands of the Royals, the Mets head into 2016 with an uncommon (for them) sense of optimism. They’re bringing back four-fifths of last year’s rotation and slotting Long Island’s own Steven Matz into the spot vacated by the trade of Jonathon Niese for 2B Neil Walker. The trade for Walker was necessitated by the Mets’ unusually rational decision to allow playoff hero Daniel Murphy to leave via free agency to the Washington Nationals. It would’ve been easy and totally defensible for the Mets to give Murphy a big payday after watching him hit seven homers in 38 at-bats over the first two rounds of the playoffs, but they instead reminded themselves that 31-year-olds do not suddenly go from hitting one home run every 54 at-bats to hitting one every 5.4 at-bats. Walker is a year younger, has both a better bat and glove, and comes with only one year left on his contract. Third baseman David Wright should, hopefully, be able to play more than the 38 games he was limited to by spinal stenosis. When he’s on the field, he’s still a top-10 3B, but he has averaged only 108 games since his back first flared up on him in 2011 – You know anybody who used to have a bad back? Fingers crossed! And, there’s Yoenis Cespedes – no sane person expects Cespedes to reproduce the 157 OPS+ he posted with the Mets over the final 57 games, but if he can just be the player he’s been over the past four seasons – which is to say a 4-WAR guy who can occasionally carry a team for a month – he’ll be a bargain at $20 million, even if it means he exercises his opt-out ahead of 2017. Stir in a full season of catcher Travis d’Arnaud, who was limited by injuries to 67 games and a full season of left fielder Michael Conforto, there’s a chance for the Mets offense to really hum. A year after surrendering a 2-0 ninth-inning lead over the Royals in what would prove to be the decisive game of the World Series, Matt Harvey takes the ball for the Metropolitans. Harvey hopes to improve on an impressive return from Tommy John surgery, in which he went 13-8 with a 2.71 ERA and 188 strikeouts in 189.1 innings. Hopefully he can focus on business between the lines this year, rather than having to deal with his agent issuing fiats via the press about his usage.
Hail the conquering heroes!
Spitting in the eye of modern baseball analytics, the Royals walked less than any team in the AL, hit the second-fewest homers, and had a league-average slugging percentage. Their pitcher’s walk and strikeout rates were worse than league-average, though they did keep the ball in the park, allowing just 155 homers. The thing they were really good at was catching the ball as they turned a higher percentage of batted balls into outs than any other team except the Blue Jays, which in turn led to KC allowing the second-fewest unearned runs and having the best ERA-to-FIP ratio in the league. Then, there was the ridiculous relief corps led by Wade Davis, Greg Holland, Ryan Madson and Kevin Herrera, who compiled a 2.72 ERA and helped the Royals win 111 consecutives games when leading after seven innings. Jarrod Dyson had been anointed to take over for Alex Rios, who was, according to WAR, the Royals worst everyday player, but Dyson suffered a strained oblique in spring training that should keep him out of action till mid April. Still, once Dyson is healthy, he should represent an upgrade in right. The Royals have also parted ways with their worst starting pitcher, Jeremy Guthrie, who had a 5.95 ERA in 148.1 innings. Taking over for Guthrie is Ian Kennedy, who somehow convinced KC to give him $70 million over the next five years. Kennedy is little more than a fairly reliable innings eater at this stage with the potential to turn into a full blown tire fire, like Guthrie. KC also bid adieu to stretch-drive rental Johnny Cueto with an eye toward Chris Young and Kris Medlen picking up his starts. For game one of 2016, however, the start goes to Edinson Volquez, the 32-year-old journeyman starter who last year went 13-9 with a 3.82 ERA and 155 strikeouts in 200.1 innings.