Monday Morning Update: April 3, 2017

Gary Sanchez’s sophomore campaign, the duality of Chicago and a few more reasons to get excited about baseball season.

Editor’s note: It’s Opening Week on ChinMusicPod.com. We started it off with Musings on Opening Day from benevolent dictator/Editor in Chief, Brendan Murray. Today, Mr. Murray is back with another all-baseball edition of the Monday Morning Update. Play Ball!

1. Gary Sanchez’s second act

I’ve talked before about the many reasons to be excited about being a Yankee fan this year, and I surely will many time again this year. So to start off this season, we’ll try to sharpen our focus a bit. And we’ll begin at the beginning—probably the most exciting, or at least, most interesting part of the Yankees’ 2017 season.

While there are plenty of young players to keep an eye on this year, including Aaron Judge, Greg Bird and maybe even Gleybar Torres later this year, Sanchez will command the most attention. The catcher was rightfully described as Ruthian during the past season, as he left the earth behind him scorched after being called up to the big-league team. I campaigned hard for him to be President MVP Rookie of the Year, but alas.

This year is when the fun really begins, though. It’s pretty harsh to call Sanchez’s run a mere hot streak, but the familiar call of “small sample size” is as present here as it’s ever been. There’s almost no way Sanchez can continue to hit a homer more than once for every two games unless he’s going to shatter steroids-era home run records as a sophomore, but those will be the expectations. Anything less, and there will be whispers and shouts that he’s a flash in the pan, a new Shane Spencer.

So there will be mental tests for young Sanchez, as critics and fan alike expect herculean feats. There will be plenty of physical tests as well, as he must adjust to a full season behind the plate in the major leagues, and teams that know much more about his strengths and weaknesses than they did during the rookie campaign.

I’m an optimist, but I have faith in Sanchez. Either way, it’s going to be a wild ride in the Bronx this year. It may even burn once again.

2. Can the Red Sox rotation hold up?

As a Yankee fan living in Boston, I have plenty of reason to be a bit wary about this season in the AL East, even if there is finally something of a youth revolution in the Bronx.

The kids in New York aren’t quite ready yet, and the pitching is a sore spot, but that’s not the case for the Red Sox. Boston’s prospect pool has already produced a superstar in Mookie Betts, a standout player in Xander Bogarts, and some still-maturing talents in guys like Andrew Benintendi and Jackie Bradley Jr. And the Red Sox pitching staff is seemingly stacked, including last year’s AL Cy Young award winner, and a pair of imported aces in David Price and new addition Chris Sale to join him. It’s a team that’s built to win now and to continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

But despite all the reason to assume the Red So will race to the top of the AL East, things are shaky in Boston. That pitching staff, pricey as it may be, is also filled with questions—can Sale handle the intense pressure that comes with being a high-priced trade target in Boston? How will David Price’s story with the Red Sox play out? Can Pomeranz build on his award-winning season?

Already, there’s reason’s for Beantown fans to worry, as Price has been dealing with an arm injury that varies in severity depending on who’s examining in him. Sale has been prone to outbursts in the shadows of playing for the second most popular season in Chicago—who’s to say he won’t do more of the same under the bright lights of Boston? And Porcello may have the hardware to display, but plenty thought his 2016 campaign, and the 22 wins and 3+ ERA that went with it, may not have been deserving.

There’s no doubting that the Red Sox have all the talent to rule the American league in 2017. But when the expectations are so high, it can be easy to disappoint, especially in Boston.

3. The Battle for the NL East

There may be a clear preseason favorite in the AL East, but the same doesn’t apply to its National League counterpart.

The NL East hasn’t been won by the same team consecutively since the Phillies did so in 2010 and 2011, and it’s not hard to see why, While teams up and down the eastern seaboard in the National League have built impressive prospect reserves and been dubbed the next team to beat in the MLB, none have quite gotten there yet.

The Marlins are constantly dealing with the changing whims and tight wallet of their owner Jeffery Loria. the Braves have still yet to return to anything resembling the run of success they had in the 90s. And the Mets and Nationals, the two strongest teams as the year begins to unfold, have yet to reach the heights of their much-hyped potential.

When the New York Mets are fully healthy, they boast a rotation that includes superstars, hot rookies, and probably earns the title of best in baseball. The problem is we just haven’t seen all the weapons in their arsenal assembled at once, as Jacob de Grom Matt Harvey, Steven Matz, Noah Syndergaard, and Zack Wheeler have all missed significant time during one season or another. And the Mets have struggled to hit for as long as their pitching has taken center stage, even with the addition of five-star-stud Yoenis Cespedes. Add it up and the sum is a team that followed up an NL East crown and World Series appearance with an exit in the Wild Card game.

Meanwhile, in Washington, Steven Strasburg is himself fairly familiar with the trainer’s room. Bryce Harper has shown that he’s capable of having one of the best season’s of any hitter who has picked up a bat, nd a quietly above average season for a player at his position. The result for the Nationals is a pair of scattered division titles and 0 pennants. Not exactly stellar there.

These two teams both seem to be bursting at the seams with talent and potential once again in 2017. With a little bit of luck, this could be one of the best divisional battles in some time.

4. Can Theo Launch Another Chicago dynasty?

Hockey fans are used to seeing the Blackhawks of Chicago dominate the NHL, both on the ice and in the headlines. Baseball fans know all too well how successful the Boston Red Sox have been since bucking their curse in 2004, and the media and popular support that has followed.

Put them together, and you may just have the Chicago Cubs in the late 2010’s.

Theo Epstein has already accomplished the unthinkable in turning baseball’s two biggest cows for slaughter, the Cubs, and the Red Sox, into championship clubs. Now, he’s going to try to do the impossible in turning them both into ring-collecting dynasties and major market powers. And there’s a good chance he’ll do it too, with a pitching staff filled with all-stars, a powerful young offense still being underpaid thanks to rookie wages and a fan base that spans the country.

Then again, winning one championship is hard, and winning a second is even worse. The Cubs will have plenty to contend with, including either one or both of those talented young NL East teams and their old rivals in St. Louis.

I’d say this is where the hard part starts for the Cubs, and point to the Royals and the Mets, young teams with bright futures that have struggled with consistency after reaching the biggest stage.

But considering they broke a century’s old curse just a few month’s ago, I’ll just say that we may want to brace ourselves for another Theo Epstein juggernaut, and another Chicago championship run, all rolled into one.

5. A Tale of Two Teams

So, the skies on the South Side of Chicago are pretty sunny these days. How about on the North Side?

Not so much.

This is the darkest timeline for White Sox fans, Not only is their own front office shipping out the best players on the payroll to the powerful bidders elsewhere in the American and National league alike, but their hated rivals are the world’s darlings and World Series champions. Add in a bit of embarrassment for the LaRoche and the jersey-cutting incidents, and it’s rough times for the White Sox.

The good news for White Sox fans? Their team should make the Battle for Chicago a little closer before too long. And at least ownership is doing what it can to make the pain as minimal as possible. It’s being frank and open about its plans to tank/rebuild and is taking the smartest route known to make the team better, shedding aging salary in exchange for youth and flexibility.

Take it from me, White Sox fans, it may hurt to see them go, but when the Opening Day roster is filled with bright futures instead of remember-when’s, they season will hold much more joy.

6. The AL’s best got stronger

We hear plenty about East Coast bias, but given the strength of Major League Baseball’s central divisions, that may be about to change.

Last year both pennant winners hailed from America’s heartland, and that may not change this year. Especially in the American League, where, even as the Red Sox built their arsenal to comically outsize proportions, the league’s best team improved its roster, and with it, their chances at a championship.

Adding Edwin Encarnacion to Cleveland, along with a fully healthy pitching staff, is a dizzying prospect for consistent opponents of the Indians. A team that made it the World Series with a depleted rotation thanks to timely and powerful hitting a shut-down, the inventive bullpen got another weapon, and for cheap no less.

Terry Francona has become one of my favorite figures in baseball since he left the Boston dugout. He’s genuine, clever, and baseball is more entertaining when he’s involved in the day-to-day of the game.

It’s a good thing because the team that he manages is going to be around once again, it seems.

7. Wherefore art thou Moneyball?

For a team with a glorious history of standing out, it seems like the Oakland Athletics are lost in the crowd pretty often these days.

Their stadium is a mess, their uniforms are no longer the lone spate of color in an otherwise lifeless template, and Moneyball is now just basic strategy. Take those signatures away, and we’re left with a team in a small market sporting a strange elephant as a logo and not much else.

It’s tough to know what’s left for the A’s. It seems they find themselves right back where they started. Now that the advanced metrics and alternative way of looking things that made Billy Beane’s early days such a high-profile way of success have become the standard, the team is left trying to compete with the richest of the rich, and just not having the pocketbook to do so.

But necessity is the mother of invention, and Oakland is nothing if not in need of another dose of innovation, creative thinking, and intelligent roster building. Can Beane do it again?

8. Can the Astros land among the stars?

It’s probably a pretty good time to be a Houston Astros beat reporter, considering the team has been awfully busy in the past few years.

They packed up their things and moved to the American League last year, adding a DH to their roster and adding a newly competitive roster to the somewhat crowded AL West. When they arrived, they quickly through off the reputation of being a doormat that had followed them during their times in the National League, building a roster that went to the Wild Card in Yankee Stadium and won, thanks in large part to their bearded ace, Dallas Keuchel, and diminutive infielder, Jose Altuve.

But the lack of depth beyond those two has proven to be an issue, and the Astros not only failed to make the playoffs but failed to truly threaten for a spot. Can baseball’s hottest team return to their spot among the American League stars?

9.How much a Dodger cost?

As Yankee fan, I can tell you, because I’ve been told by many other fans many times. Just because you spend all that money, doesn’t guarantee the final transaction will result in a championship. Injuries, locker room issues and just plain ol’ bad luck can doom even the most expensive and luxurious rosters.

If you’re a Los Angeles Dodgers fan, this isn’t news to you either. The Dodgers have spent at an even higher rate than the Evil Empire Yankees or the new-look Red Sox in recent years, owning the league’s highest payroll for the past four straight season.They even let the Red Sox dump their overpriced salaries in hopes of mining some talent out of them. When big market teams like Boston are looking to you to take on contracts the likes of Adrian Gonzalez, you’re spending dumb money, smart money, all money.

But it hasn’t added up for the Dodgers. They let their manager go to the (somehow) sunnier pastures of Miami after Donny baseball couldn’t do in LA what he also couldn’t do as a player in New York.

There’s no doubt you know most of the names on the Dodgers’ roster if you’re reading this article. And odds are, you still aren’t all that afraid of them. That’s pretty telling.

For Yankee fans, and even White Sox fans, the pain of the current expense and age-induced rebuilds are assuaged at least by a championship ring from this century. Unless something changes soon, LA fans won’t be so lucky.

Have a great week, and a great baseball season, everyone! For more, follow @MurraySportTalk on Twitter and stay tuned to ChinMusicPod.com.

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