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Cubs' lineup with Schwarber the best in MLB

Astros, Red Sox, Nationals, Indians round out top 5
March 28, 2017

In this Opening Day lead-up, let's talk about lineups. Following Tuesday's ranking of the top five rotations in the game at the start of 2017, we move on now to the offensive outlooks.Baseball saw a surge in production last season, with the per-game average climbing by nearly a quarter of

In this Opening Day lead-up, let's talk about lineups. Following Tuesday's ranking of the top five rotations in the game at the start of 2017, we move on now to the offensive outlooks.
Baseball saw a surge in production last season, with the per-game average climbing by nearly a quarter of a run (from 4.25 to 4.48). The long ball is the key to the comeback, with more home runs (5,610) hit than any season other than 2000 (5,693). And with that power has come a cavalcade of K's, with a strikeout rate record set in each of the last nine years.
So it's never been easier to fill a lineup with a bunch of Rob Deers. But bat-to-ball skills, on-base ability, smart baserunning -- all these things are even more capable of taking a club to the next level in today's environment. Depth and versatility are also essential at a time when very few players get through the grind of 162 unscathed and more and more positions rely on some sort of platoon.
With all that in mind, these are the five lineups that I feel separate themselves from the pack, on paper.
5. Indians
On the one hand, Jason Kipnis' spring shoulder injury (after a power spike in 2016) and the sheer unknowability of what to expect from Michael Brantley prevent the Indians from occupying a higher spot here. On the other hand, Brantley's spring was encouraging enough and Kipnis' injury is being advertised as short-term enough (he's expected back before the end of April) to grant the Tribe a spot in my top five.

The addition of Edwin Encarnacion obviously added major thump to the middle of this order, in which Kipnis, Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez and Carlos Santana already provided a ton of on-base ability and octane. Encarnacion won't strike the Indians out of innings, which was the one knock on Mike Napoli in his career year. The loss of Rajai Davis means Cleveland won't be as dynamic on the basepaths as it once was, and there are questions in the outfield platoons and about the production behind the plate. But this profiles as a team that's going to produce a ton of traffic, which bodes well for the Tribe being similarly productive to 2016, when it ranked second in the AL in runs.
4. Nationals
To be clear, I'm grading on a curve here for National League teams. The Nats' lineup looks like one of the strongest in the Senior Circuit, and so I'll place it ahead of several American League squads that might very well wind up scoring more runs.

The Nationals scored the eighth-most runs in the Majors last season despite a pretty pedestrian season from Bryce Harper. Maybe I'm buying into Harper's stellar spring a little too much, but an improvement in upper-body strength and batted-ball luck bodes well for him improving on last year's 116 OPS+, even if he doesn't quite reach the 198 mark of 2015.
A Harper bounceback would take Washington to another offensive level, and the addition of Adam Eaton -- to go with a full season of Trea Turner the burner -- ought to give Harper and Daniel Murphy plenty of RBI opportunity. Adam Lind is a reasonable insurance policy should Ryan Zimmerman break down again, and, though Matt Wieters won't match the impact Wilson Ramos was making before he got hurt last year, he could make the dropoff a little less noticeable.
3. Red Sox
Boston led the Majors in runs (878) last season, by a significant margin, but it's hard to know how much the retirement of its signature slugger will affect the team. It's not just David Ortiz's 2016 production, but the way his presence affected those around him in the order.

With Ortiz absent, it's incumbent upon young Andrew Benintendi (who looks like a natural), offseason acquisition Mitch Moreland and the slimmed-down Pablo Sandoval to ensure the Red Sox's lineup remains balanced. In addition, veterans Dustin Pedroia and Hanley Ramirez need to build on their sizzling second halves, and it will also be interesting to see how Xander Bogaerts rebounds from his second-half dip in productivity.
Even with Big Papi gone, there's a nice mix here of pure presence and pure upside, which could take Boston far. But you do wonder if this will be as consistent an operation as it was when No. 34 was in the middle of the mix. (You also wonder if Papi will suddenly reappear in the second half, but that's another subject for another day.)
2. Astros
Jose Altuve was already a veritable lock for 200 hits, 40 doubles and 30 steals, and last year he decided to add 20-homer power to his game, because why not?
The little man is the engine around which this offense operates, and the spark George Springer provided at the top of the order last year, the upside that rests in the bat of young Alex Bregman, the MVP potential of Carlos Correa (even in a "down" 2016, his output as a 21-year-old shortstop was special, by historical standards) and the ageless production of Carlos Beltran give the Astros as terrific a top five as you'll find in the Majors this year.

Elsewhere in the order, Brian McCann and Josh Reddick bring better balance, and Cuban import Yulieski Gurriel is an interesting wild card as he settles into stateside ball.
1. Cubs
Take one of only two NL lineups to score 800 runs last season (the Rockies were the other) and add Kyle Schwarber. That'll work.
The Cubs are devastatingly deep, and that's a major reason why they did what they did last season. They have a counterpunch for just about every hit a 183-day season has to offer. Assuming health, manager Joe Maddon will have to continue to get creative with player positioning in his nightly nine, ensuring adequate at-bats for Javier Baez, but that's a good problem to have. The bottom line is that Schwarber, reigning NL MVP Award winner Kristopher Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Benjamin Zobrist make for a quartet of competitive at-bats that is a nightmare for opposing pitchers to match up with.
The looming question is how long the Cubs can afford to ride Jason Heyward as a regular if his struggles at the plate continue, because there could be incentive to see more lineups featuring both Baez and Zobrist. And of course, the Cubs have some interesting kids -- Jeimer Candelario, Ian Happ, Eloy Jimenez -- on the cusp.
Honorable mention: The Orioles and Cardinals both have pure power, but they have concerns about OBP. The Rangers and Rockies have great potential but some health questions. The Dodgers mix and match well, but they have to improve against lefties. The Blue Jays have better balance with Kendrys Morales, but they have to account for the absence of Encarnacion. The D-backs look good on paper, but can A.J. Pollock stay on the field? The Mariners and Tigers both have big bats, but they also both operate around some aging bodies. The point is, there are a lot of teams that deserve consideration for this list (including some not even mentioned here), but I went with the five that seem to have the fewest obvious flaws.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.