By Matthew Ajaj
As the days begin lasting longer and the weather is getting warmer, baseball season is inching ever so closer. The world’s greatest game is about to get even greater — this season, the MLB is infused with more dominant young talent than ever before and parity is prevalent, as at least 20 teams have a realistic shot at the title.
The Arizona Diamondbacks are one of those teams. After failing to make the playoffs last year, the D-Backs rattled the free agency market by adding 2015 Cy Young-snub Zack Greinke to the squad, as well as trading for All-Star pitcher Shelby Miller and shortstop Jean Segura. At the heart of Arizona’s batting order is superstar first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, but the hottest name in the Grand Canyon State is A.J. Pollock. A five-tool player, Pollock is coming off an outstanding season, slashing .315/.367/.498 (batting average/on base percentage/slugging) to complement his 20 home runs and 39 steals — he is a dark horse candidate for 2016’s National League (NL) MVP award.
With one less steal and standing seven inches shorter than the 6’1’’ Pollock, Jose Altuve had a “down year” in 2015, sporting a slash line of .313/.353/.459. Nonetheless, the short-statured second baseman was the leader of a youthful Houston Astros squad that made a shocking playoff appearance after countless years of last-place finishes. Accompanying Altuve is American League Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa, as well as the budding George Springer. Houston’s impressive 2015 showing should give this homer-hitting lineup plenty of confidence coming into this season and with playoff experience under their belts, an NL pennant is not out of the question.
While Arizona and Houston show much promise, there is no team more hyped for 2016 than the Chicago Cubs. Although the team failed to live up to “Back to the Future Part II’s” 2015 World Series prophecy, the Cubbies still showed some movie magic by reaching the NL Championship Series with an assortment of players that most fans had never heard of before. Under the guidance of eccentric skipper Joe Maddon, young Cubs Anthony Rizzo, Jake Arrieta and Kris Bryant have become household names. With the acquisition of Jason Heyward over the offseason, Chicago effectively stripped its division rival St. Louis Cardinals of a high-quality player and cemented itself as the favorite to win it all.
Flying under the radar are Heyward’s former employers. The Cards have had an entire offseason to recover from a myriad of injuries that still did not stop them from owning the MLB’s best regular season record in 2015. Cardinal outfielders Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty are the best young, unknown sluggers and will soon be making their way into water cooler talk.
Also going unnoticed are the New York Yankees, whose recent stint of stinginess has kept them out of the spotlight. Yet, they now boast the league’s best bullpen after acquiring fireball pitcher Aroldis Chapman. The Yanks also improved their offense by replacing mediocre infielder Stephen Drew with the sterling Starlin Castro.
But the league’s best-kept secret is the Cleveland Indians’s front-end starting rotation — Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar. Each pitcher posted an earned run average under 3.70 in 2015. The Indians also boast another terrific trio, consisting of hitters Michael Brantley, Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis, who each compiled a batting average over .300 last season.
However, this outside thinking may be all for naught, as 2016 is an even year, so the ’10, ’12 and ’14 World Series-winning San Francisco Giants will probably take home the championship yet again.
Personally, I am more excited for this MLB season than any that have preceded it. We are witnessing an age of extreme talent and athleticism in baseball, headlined by Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and Giancarlo Stanton. While the sport does not stimulate the viewer’s eye as effectively as it did in the juiced-up early 2000s, fans can take solace in the fact that baseball is now a relatively clean sport and it is being played at a level of natural human capacity that is unparalleled to MLB’s past.
Now is the perfect time to become a fan, as today’s top dogs will likely still be the best players in the sport for the next five (or maybe even 10) years. Oozing in player ability and invigorated by near league-wide parity, expectations and predictions are boundless for the 2016 season. Baseball is back, people — join in on the craze.