We are officially less than a month away from pitchers and catchers reporting. With a lot of major signings and trades already in the books it's time to look back at the winter that was. Below we go over the major takeaways so far from the 2016-17 MLB offseason:
--Make no mistake. The Red Sox are worse off without David Ortiz than with him. But they head into 2017 with a better team than they had in 2016. That's because last year's biggest strength (the offense) is still a strength. A full season of Andrew Benintendi plus the continued development of the young core should help with the loss of Papi. Perhaps they won't have the number one offense again, but it'll still be a top unit. The reason they are better now is, of course, because of Chris Sale and the super rotation they formed. When your number three starter just won the AL Cy Young award you know you're in good shape. I would say no team wants to face the trio of Sale, David Price, and Rick Porcello in the playoffs but until Price wins a playoff game that's a lie. Sale has never pitched in the postseason but one has to assume he will succeed there. If, and it's a big if, Price looks like his regular season self come October this team could cruise to the World Series.
--Boston's biggest challenger to the American League pennant will be the team that won it in 2016. On paper the Tribe got even better this offseason when they signed Edwin Encarnacion to a three year, $60 million contract. But Cleveland already had a good offense last season. EE is virtually replacing Mike Napoli, who hit 34 homers last year. Encarnacion is an upgrade but he isn't going to be what propels the Indians to a championship. If the Tribe win the World Series this year it'll be more because of a healthy starting rotation come playoff time. Add Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco to the 2016 Indians and you have to figure they close out their 3-1 series lead over the Cubs. Baseball fans should be salivating over a possible Red Sox-Indians ALCS where every pitching matchup will feature guys with ace like stuff.
--One of the major storylines from the 2016 playoffs was the way managers were using their bullpens. It started in the ALDS with Terry Francona's usage of Andrew Miller and was eventually copied by Joe Madison and Aroldis Chapman to give the Cubs their first championship since 1908. This, combined with how few quality starters were on the open market, meant that the record for the highest contract ever given to a reliever was surpassed three times this offseason. Mark Melancon, Kenley Jansen, and Chapman himself all cashed in. Whether or not Francona's strategy gets used more often in regular season games remains to be seen but this is almost certainly what teams will do in playoff games from now on. Another key to this strategy is whether or not some closers will buy into it. Miller is so valuable to the Indians because he is willing to pitch the sixth inning if need be. Chapman, meanwhile, has said he didn't like how Maddon used him in the World Series. As long as relievers get paid for performance and not for saves this should be a shift in ideology we continue to see in 2017.
--Even with the additions made by both Boston and Cleveland there is no question who the World Series favorite entering the season will be. That title belongs to the Chicago Cubs as they attempt to become baseball's first repeat champion since the Yankees won three in a row from 1998-2000. So far this offseason the Cubs have lost Chapman, Dexter Fowler, Jorge Soler, and Jason Hammel. They have replaced them with Wade Davis and Jon Jay. Add in a full season from Kyle Schwarber and the offseason additions and subtractions result in a near push. That means the biggest challenge facing the defending champs will be complacency and the innings burden on their pitchers from making two straight deep playoff runs. Ending the championship drought was a major rallying cry for the team they no longer have. However, they still have a dominant core of all stars that must realize they have a chance to become a modern baseball dynasty. There will be signs of a championship hangover throughout the season but it isn't a big enough worry for any of the Dodgers, Nationals, or Cardinals to be considered favorites over the Cubs.