16 storylines to watch out for in '16
Happy New Year and welcome to 2016. It could be the year of a 3,000-hit milestone, a heroic sendoff for a legend, the first unanimous first-ballot Hall of Famer, and maybe even the craziest drought-busting parade the sports world ever saw. Anything's possible in Major League Baseball's no-repeat era, so here are 16 questions for '16 as we officially begin the countdown for pitchers and catchers to report to Spring Training:
1. Another Year of the Giant?
Probably no one celebrated New Year's Eve with more gusto than your average Giants fan, because this is an even-numbered year. Johnny Cueto is on board as Bruce Bochy's club tries to win a World Series, something it did in 2010, '12 and '14. History is on the line, because the only other team that has followed this Giants pattern was the Cardinals in 1942, '44 and '46.
2. Will Gordon still be a Royal?
We enter the New Year with plenty of big free-agent signings still ahead. Two key figures from the past World Series are still out there: outfielders Alex Gordon and Yoenis Cespedes. Will Kansas City increase its offer to bring back Gordon in its bid to end MLB's record streak of 15 years without a repeat champion? Will Cespedes go to his fifth new team in his fifth MLB season? Justin Upton, Chris Davis, Wei-Yin Chen and Ian Desmond are among the unsigned players available.
3. Is this "next year" for the Cubs?
OK, we ask this every year. But this time, we're serious. Joe Maddon's team is absolutely stacked, with the additions of Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey to a club that reached the National League Championship Series behind such stars as Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester. Theo Epstein went through this breakthrough stuff with the Red Sox in 2004 as their general manager, and now the Cubs' president of baseball operations has a simple battle cry reflected on the club site: "Let's Go."
4. Who are the next young stars?
It was an unprecedented year in 2015 for 25-and-under talent, so naturally people are looking for the next wave in '16. According to a survey of MLB club execs in the latest MLBPipeline.com poll, Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager and Twins center fielder Byron Buxton are the two most obvious choices for top prospect, while the top two pitching prospects are Lucas Giolito of the Nationals and Blake Snell of the Rays.
5. Are the Nationals better with Dusty Baker?
At this time last year, most people were picking Washington to go all the way, at least to the first World Series in franchise history. Despite an NL Most Valuable Player Award-winning season from Bryce Harper, the team went bust and manager Matt Williams was dismissed and replaced by the veteran Baker. While we're at it, can Max Scherzer pick up where he left off? He threw a no-hitter in his final 2015 start, his second no-no of the season.
6. When will Ichiro get his 3,000th hit?
According to the MLB.com Milestone Tracker, it could happen on July 5 against the Mets at Citi Field. There's also a question of whether he can rebound from a career-worst .229 season in 2015 for the Marlins.
7. Is New York a Mets town now?
The Mets are coming off a World Series appearance, and New Yorkers are still buzzing about Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard. But the Yankees just dealt for Aroldis Chapman, so now there's actually a question within a question: What will be the outcome of an investigation into his alleged domestic violence? Did you know: The Yanks' current drought of consecutive years without a World Series appearance (six) just reached third place for longest in franchise history since the Babe Ruth era.
8. Who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame?
Will Ken Griffey Jr. be the first unanimous first-ballot selection? After back-to-back large classes, the Hall of Fame is about to call the names for 2016 enshrinement in Cooperstown. Junior is a first-ballot lock. Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, Trevor Hoffman and Tim Raines are among the maybes. Results will be announced at 6 p.m. ET on Wednesday.
9. Has Texas baseball ever been better?
The Astros took a big leap ahead of schedule in 2015, improving by 16 wins in A.J. Hinch's first year as manager behind core players like Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Dallas Keuchel and George Springer. Houston and Texas both made it to the last American League Division Series, and now you can imagine the latter with Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish in the same rotation.
10. Can Trout do it again at San Diego?
The Padres will host the 87th All-Star Game on July 12 at Petco Park, and Angels center fielder Mike Trout will be practically in his own backyard as he seeks an unprecedented third consecutive Ted Williams All-Star Game MVP Award presented by Chevrolet. An on the subject of MVP hardware, we wonder if Trout can make it five consecutive years finishing in the top two of AL MVP voting.
11. Will Jose Fernandez be traded?
The Marlins say they doubt it and that no one has overwhelmed them to date. But with the top free-agent aces signed and sealed, this could be the difference-maker for some teams with lofty ambitions. The right-hander still hasn't lost a home game with Miami.
12. Is St. Louis even worried?
Two words: Cardinal Way. Sure, they had key defections to the rival Cubs. Sure, they could have used David Price, and they could use Upton now. But the NL Central still goes through Busch Stadium in the Yadier Molina era, with three consecutive division titles and seven of the past 12. Is there a hole in right field? Stephen Piscotty homered three times against the Cubs in the NLDS, capping a fine rookie season in which he hit .305 in 63 games. A rotation including Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez and Jaime Garcia still has swagger, and Trevor Rosenthal is nearly automatic at closer.
13. Can the Dodgers put the pieces together?
Now it's Dave Roberts' turn. The Dodgers lost Zack Greinke, but they signed left-hander Scott Kazmir and then reportedly broke up an all-lefty rotation with the addition of Kenta Maeda, a Japanese ace. And see No. 4 for the brightest future of all. Maybe this finally will be the mix ownership has been after.
14. What will the new Opening Day format be like?
The schedule features a combined seven national ESPN telecasts -- three on Sunday, April 3 (including a Mets-Royals rematch in the "Sunday Night Baseball" national opener) -- and four on Monday, April 4. Those seven games will include the participation of all 10 clubs that played in the 2015 postseason. The season officially begins in Pittsburgh, and after three straight NL Wild Card appearances, the folks there are asking whether 2016 is the year the Pirates push the envelope and maybe get back to the Fall Classic.
15. Can Arizona and Seattle make a move?
That Greinke signing was a major indicator that the D-backs feel now is the time to put contending talent around superstar first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. By simply taking him away from the Dodgers, they certainly took a step forward, and Shelby Miller joined him in the rotation. In Seattle, the only active AL club never to reach the World Series hopes to follow up a disappointing 2015 season with better results under the guidance of new manager Scott Servais and new GM Jerry Dipoto.
16. Will David Ortiz and Turner Field go out in style?
Naturally, we save this question for last. Big Papi's pop has increased for three straight seasons, reaching 37 homers and 108 RBIs in 2015. Now that he's turned 40 and is set for a retirement season, a lot of fantasy baseball owners are going to ride him one last time. Price will come along for the ride at Fenway, so we'll see if Boston can stage another worst-to-first season. Meanwhile down in Atlanta, it also will be the end of an era for the Braves' ballpark, so expect a lot of trips down memory lane as SunTrust Park rises for 2017.