2017 MLB Preview: 5 Stories to Watch

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The MLB season for many couldn’t have ended any better last year as a team with the longest losing streak in sports finally came through.

The Chicago Cubs were known as the Loveable losers for a very long time as last year’s title came after over 100 years of misery.

There was never a team in all of professional sports that had lost for so long and for some a curse was to blame.

It wasn’t entirely unthinkable though as the Cubs ha da habit of getting close only to see something go wrong just before they could truly make a run at the World Series.

All of that suffering ended in early November last year when Chicago was crowned the World Series Champions, beating the Cleveland Indians in Game 5 of the World Series.

The town went crazy with joy and when the team returned home there were a reported 5-million people, albeit those numbers are hard to prove, to welcome them home.

The entire city took a holiday to celebrate their beloved Cubbies taking home the title with many of the fans waiting their entire lives to see a championship.

It was one of the feel-good stories of the sports year as the loveable losers were now the team to beat in the MLB.

The win also took away one of the longest running storylines in the MLB as every year people wondered if the Cubs could actually do it and take home the title after over 100 years.

Now as the 2017 season approaches the roles are flipped almost 180 degrees as the Cubs are far from the team that everyone wonders about.

They are now the team to beat and remain one of the best rosters in the league as they head into a new season.

The question of winning a title immediately gives way to the question of just how many titles this group can win.

They are a young team with a lot of potential that many of them met last year to win the World Series.

With another year under their belts and a long postseason run, the Cubs are primed for another run at the title.

That could easily mean that they go from a team everyone was cheering for to one of the most hated teams in baseball.baseball-sidebar

After all, success breed hatred in sports and there are plenty of teams who know that all too well, just ask the Yankees or Red Sox.

That leaves the Cubs dead in the crosshairs as everyone is looking at them as the standard to go after throughout the season.

As good as the Cubs were throughout the season in 2016 they come into another season with plenty of unpredictability.

It really only takes one or two key injuries to change the outlook of a team the Cubs were very lucky to avoid major injuries that shut them down.

They stayed healthy for the majority of the season and it helped them get to the World Series and take the win.

It seems odd that something as simple as injuries could derail a season but that is the case.

Even in a season as long as the MLB season one or two key injuries can change everything as teams can see their top players lost for extended periods of time leading to down periods.

Those down periods can make a major difference when it comes time to fight for the postseason.

Injuries are far from the only thing though as there are slumps throughout the season to go along with these injuries.

There are also great periods of teams playing above what they are expected to that can make a massive difference at the end of the season.

That is what the 30 teams will be pursuing as they try to avoid those long down periods and hopefully have a few of those great periods.

That is what the season boils down to as small moments and small periods can make all the difference.

The Cubs found that out last year as they avoided the real issues for most of the season and went through the entire season as a top team finishing on top.

It is far from an easy thing to do but that pursuit happens again as the new MLB season is ready to begin and everyone looking to start well and finish well and wishing to end where the Cubs ended last year.

paceofplay

It is the third year of Rob Manfred’s tenure as the Commissioner of Baseball and from the start of that tenure, he has had one single mandate. From his first press conference, Manfred has made the speed of the game a priority. He has taken steps to make baseball faster and remove the unnecessary parts of the game, at least as deemed by him. The concern comes from the fact that the general fan base of the MLB is getting older as the younger generations are not tuning in as much. As everyone knows the younger generation does not have the same attention span as in the past. That is trouble for a game that is generally one of the slower games in the world and getting the attention of a younger generation is tough. So Manfred looks to speed the game up and make things a little better for a new generation of fans. It started in 2014 when the MLB experimented with a number of new rules in the Arizona Fall League. Some of those experiments were implemented including a batter’s box rule requiring players to keep at least a foot in the box, timed pitching changes, as well as a few more. They continued making changes in 2016 when they introduced restrictions on mound visits. 2017 will follow the same path as the league announced more rules aimed at making the game faster. Many of the new rules will be towards the review of plays requiring 30 seconds maximum for a manager to challenge a play and allowing 2-minutes, albeit based on the play itself, for the umpire to make the determination. The biggest and most controversial change will be the no-pitch intentional walk. This new rule essentially allows the pitcher to tell the umpire that they will be walking the batter and the batter will simply take the base. There will no longer require four pitches thrown outside to walk the batter and that is the centre of controversy. For some, the possibility of something happening in those four pitches creates some uncertainty. Taking that away could remove exciting plays there is also an outcry from the old school fans who like things they way they are. The reality is that those four pitches rarely see anything exciting and they waste time in a game that is already so slow. The league and Manfred continue to implement these rules as the ultimate goal is to reduce game time which has been working over the past few years. It will always be controversial but for the league, it is an attempt to remain relevant among a younger and different group of fans.

wbcfatigue

The World Baseball Classic remains a tournament that has a lukewarm reception among MLB teams. On one hand, it provides a display for talent around the world which allows the game to grow and allows these teams to scout some international talent all in one tournament. On the other hand, the tournament can take away major players from their MLB teams with plenty of risks along the way. The teams lose their top players for a big chunk of Spring Training with the chance that those players come back with an injury. Another big issue could be the fact that these players are truly playing meaningful games early in the season. The MLB season is already a marathon that wears on players throughout the six months. Although many believe the game is not the most physical, the fact that these players play 162 games a year with few breaks make it a tough league to be in and in which to perform at a top level. That is why in Spring Training players are very limited to the amount of time they play. They get their reps in and try to work on some aspects of the game but for the most part, the top players rarely see much time. Now there are players who will begin the season playing at a high level for almost two full weeks as much as they can. The WBC teams attempted to lessen the workload on the big name players but the fact is there are plenty of teams who had few good players to choose from. Those players took most of the time on the field and although they may not have played at 100% they still put in the effort. It leaves some wondering what the effect of the tournament could be on these players. Will the extra game eventually slow these players down when they are needed the most? Or worse, will some of the players be less durable thanks to their extra time on the field? There are already players that have suffered injuries that could compromise their season as they head back to their teams to finish out Spring Training. That provides an immediate impact on the league but could some of these players begin to get fatigued a little too early and start to breakdown during the postseason push. Only time will tell if any of this will happen and if any of the games in the WBC actually have an effect. If there is a theme near the end of the season then it will only sour the relationship between the teams and the tournament which is already a strained relationship.

bullpens

There is no professional league in North American that isn’t defined as a copy-cat league regardless of the sport. That is the case in every league that pays their players any money to play and that has pressure to perform. That pressure to perform is not only on the players but it is also on the MLB executives who need to make the right decisions to keep their jobs. They have a lot of pressure as they handle massive amounts of money and are paid well to make the right decisions. If they don’t they lose their jobs and are left to try to find somewhere else where they can try to make an impact. That pressure can often lead to decisions that don’t necessarily follow a new path. It is tough for any executive to forge their own path to success, especially when so many teams have such a small window to make the right decision. That means that executives that have struggling teams and executives that are running out of time to make the right decisions look to successful teams to find ways to be successful. When one team finds success in some way the next season there are a lot of other teams trying to do the same thing. This has happened for decades in the MLB as there was the era of big money ball where the biggest hitters were found through all-out bidding wars with the team with the most money usually coming out on top. Not everyone could compete so teams began developing big arms to compete with big bats and a period of draft and develop started. Then the money for pitchers got to be too much and the era of money-ball or advanced stats began where teams tried to find as much value as possible at every position. The eras have changed as teams always try to find a way around the norm and right now the concentration is all about the bullpen. Big-name starters are getting too expensive and with concern over the arms of major pitchers, the bullpen was playing a bigger role. Then came the 2015 Kansas City Royals who’s rotation was good but not great and who’s offence was mid-range at best and yet they still won the World Series. It was all because of their great bullpen who took over earlier in games and shut everyone down on their way to a championship. After that, every team that needs a boost is looking to put together devastating bullpens and the bidding war for the best is getting hotter every year. This year is no different as teams spent a lot of the off-season building good bullpens in the hopes that they can compete in this new era where starters are less important and massive amounts of runs are not needed.

generations

It is not a story that has necessarily been a main one before or after the seasons in the last few years but it seems to come up throughout every season multiple times. That is the battle between two very different schools of thought in the league. On one side are the purists who believe that nothing should change in the game and that there is a certain level of respect needed. This group of people tend to think that emotion has no place in the game and that the players are meant to go out and get the job done and say little. It is also a group of people that fully believe in frontier justice in the league in that if someone does something perceived as disrespectful it is perfectly ok to hit them the next time they come up to the plate. The other side of the argument is led by a new group of fans and players who want to see that emotion and want players to have a personality on and off of the field. They also believe that frontier justice is often handed out for nothing and that more often than not it highlights the hypocrisy throughout the league as things that require frontier justice are done by everyone even the teams handing it out. This battle has existed for the last few years as some players began showing their personality and showing emotion throughout the game. Most of all the battle between the two has landed on the bat flip and a constant battle between the people that say it is disrespectful to the game and the people that say it just shows that emotion. A lot centred around Jose Bautista when he had a massive bat flip in the 2015 postseason after a very emotional inning. That launched a big incident in 2016 that ended with a fight between Bautista and Rougned Odor. The debate about that bat flip has been the centre of controversy for a while but the debate comes up every time a batter throws his bat. It is much more than that though as this is a culture war between two very different generations one led by veterans and retired players and the other led by a new wave of young players. Leading the young players is Bryce Harper who is one of the more emotional players in the game. His campaign to “Make Baseball Fun Again” caught on last year as a tongue-in-cheek way of stating that this new emotion is just players having fun. To him and his new generation, there is nothing wrong with that as emotion is a part of sports and being themselves is just as important as winning games.

streakbreakers

The Cubs ended the longest championship drought in the history of professional sports last year when they finally took home the World Series. It had been a total of 107 years since Chicago took home a World Series but the relief finally came in November last year. It was a massive story but the more interesting story might just be that the Cubs were simply following a pattern started years ago by the San Francisco Giants. In 2010 the Giants won their first World Series since 1954 and it started a pattern of teams breaking droughts throughout the league. Since 2010 the Washington Nationals broke a 30-year postseason drought in 2012, the Pittsburgh Pirates broke a 20-year postseason drought in 2013, the Kansas City Royals broke a 28-year postseason drought in 2014, and the Toronto Blue Jays entered the postseason for the first time in 21 years in 2015. The droughts have been falling and more teams are getting closer to breaking massive droughts every year. The Seattle Mariners head into this year with the hope that their 15-year postseason drought can finally end after coming so close the last few years while the Nationals are hoping this is the year they can take the pennant for the first time in 48 seasons. There is one team that is suffering slightly more than the rest because of where they ended the year last season. The Cleveland Indians made a great run at the World Series as it looked like they could end the chance of the Cubs breaking their drought. It wasn’t to be though and the Indians took the loss but what made it sting more was that they were now the owners of the longest active World Series Drought in the MLB. The Cubs finally broke their drought but Cleveland extended their own to 68 years. Now the focus that had been on the Cubs for years is turning to the Indians to see if they can end their own streak. Despite their long streak they did come within a few wins of breaking their streak and so heading into a new season, there is some hope. If Cleveland can keep some of the ability they had last year they have a shot at breaking that streak again. If they can it will only increase the story of droughts falling in the MLB making things only that much more even throughout the league. It is good things for the league as these stories are always fun to watch and with the longest drought now over that spotlight turns to a city that had a great year in 2016 but came up short in the MLB.

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