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Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2017 — No. 11: Major turnarounds for the Dbacks, Rockies and Twins

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We’re a few short days away from 2018 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2017. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

In the offseason we hear so much about long-term rebuilds, tanking and teardowns. We hear about moves that are aimed at “the next good [whoever] team,” which may by three or four years in the future. We’re conditioned to believe that there are only a handful of teams who can seriously contend and twenty or more who can’t add, say, a corner outfielder because doing so makes no sense when there are only 80 wins in their future.

Then the season takes place and real baseball shows us that, sometimes, all of that stuff is utter nonsense.

The Arizona Diamondbacks finished 69-93 in 2016, which prompted the firing of then-manager Chip Hale and a complete overhaul of the front office. The hiring of Torey Lovullo was praised all around, but most preseason predictions had them, at best, in third place in the National League West and nowhere close to playoff contention. So much for that: the Dbacks flipped their record to 93-69 and won the Wild Card and, eventually, advanced to the NLDS.

Behind the turnaround: Zack Greinke returning to ace-like form, the emergence of Robbie Ray as a top starter, Archie Bradley‘s astoundingly successful conversion to the relief duties, another MVP-caliber season from Paul Goldschmidt and the deadline acquisition of slugger J.D. Martinez, who smacked 29 homers in 62 games for the Snakes. All of that resulted in an enjoyable season for Dbacks fans and a Manager of the Year Award for Lovullo.

The Colorado Rockies finished in third place in both 2016 and 2017, but in the two Wild Card era, third place can be just fine if you’re in a tough division. That was the case with the Rockies who, place in the standings notwithstanding, improved by 12 games in 2017 behind new manager Bud Black, finishing 87-75 and making the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

As can be expected of a team that calls Coors Field home, the Rockies led the National League in runs, with MVP candidates Charlie Blackmon and Nolan Arenado leading the attack. But unlike most Rockies teams in the past, they could pitch a little too, finishing in the middle of the pack in the league in runs allowed, which ain’t too shabby in Colorado. Of the eight pitchers who made starts for the Rockies in 2017, six had an ERA+ over 100, which is above average. Of the other two, one was a swingman and the other made nine starts after battling cancer. The bullpen, led by Greg Holland, was a strength as well.

The Minnesota Twins lost a major league-high 103 games in 2016, but nonetheless orchestrated a quick turnaround, going 85-77 in 2017, good for the second AL Wild Card. Your feelings about two Wild Card slots notwithstanding, it was the first time a team had lost 100 games and then reached the playoffs in the very next season.

In some ways it was a turnaround within a turnaround for Minnesota, as the Twins were sellers at the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, dealing All-Star closer Brandon Kintzler and veteran starter Jaime Garcia, yet went on a 20-10 run in August to surge past the Angels, Orioles, Mariners, Rays and Royals and into playoff contention. Like Lovullo, Twins manager Paul Molitor was rewarded with the Manager of the Year Award for his efforts.

There are a lot of things that can go into a quick turnaround. A team could sharply underperform one season and simply get back to its expected level the following year, with said return appearing to be massive improvement. A team could have a number of players experience career years at once, giving them something of a lightning-in-a-bottle season. A team could, likewise, simply have a critical number of players progress to their true talent level at the same time, thereby having a rebuild culminate the way it expected.

Which of those was the case for the Diamondbacks, Rockies and Twins? We’ll see in 2018. We may also see three or more other teams experience faster-than-expected turnarounds. Regardless of how gloomy things look in the depths of winter.

Two injured MVPs is a major bummer for baseball

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Last week Christian Yelich‘s season ended with a fractured kneecap. At the time he went down he was neck-and-neck with Cody Bellinger — I think a tad behind, though people may reasonably differ — and, at least by my reckoning, a hair or three above Anthony Rendon, Ketel Marte and Pete Alonso in the race for the NL MVP Award. As I wrote last week, I think that means Bellinger is going to walk away with the hardware when the winner is announced in November. Yelich’s injury will prevent him from making a late season surge to surpass Bellinger, but I think it would’ve taken a surge for him to do it.

Over the weekend we learned that Mike Trout’s season is over as well. He’ll be having foot surgery to deal with a nerve issue causing him pain. At the time he went down he was the clear frontrunner to win his third MVP Award. Unlike Yelich, I’m pretty sure Trout will still win the trophy. Sure, Trout hasn’t played since September 7, meaning that he’ll miss more time than Yelich will, but strained articles stumping for alternative candidates notwithstanding, his lead in the MVP race was more secure.

Trout’s 2019 ends with him setting a career high in homers with 45 and slugging percentage at .645—both of which lead the American League. He likewise leads the league in on-base percentage (.438), OPS (1.083), and in both Baseball-Reference.com’s and FanGraphs’ versions of WAR at 8.3 and 8.6, respectively. With just under two weeks to go it seems likely that Jorge Soler of the Royals will pass Trout for the home run lead, but he’s not an MVP candidate himself. Alex Bregman will likely pass him in walks. Trout seems pretty certain to finish with his lead in all or most of the other categories intact. That’s an MVP resume even if he’ll only have played in 134 games. To give the award to anyone else would be an exercise in narrative over reason. Something born of a desire to reward a guy — like, say, Bregman — for playing on a winning team as opposed to his individual accomplishments. Sure, voters are allowed to do that, but they’ve mostly eschewed such tendencies in recent years. It’d be a surprise if they backslid.

Even if Yelich’s and Trout’s injuries aren’t likely to radically change the MVP race — again, I think the NL’s was Bellinger’s to lose — they’re both still lamentable separate and apart from the fact that all injuries stink. Lamentable in a way that, unfortunately, creates a downer for baseball as it gets ready for the postseason.

The Brewers won the game in which Yelich went down and have won four of five since then. In so doing they have remained close in the race for the second Wild Card and currently stand one game back. They also have an insanely favorable schedule the rest of the way, exclusively facing the weak sisters of the National League in the Padres, Pirates, Reds and Rockies. Even so, it’s no gimmie — those Reds and Rockies games are on the road, and Great American Ballpark and Coors Field makes those bad teams better — and the reward at the end of this is likely to be a one-game play-in. You want your best player in any and all situations and the Brewers don’t have theirs. And won’t, even if they make the postseason and even if they win the Wild Card game. Having one of the game’s brightest stars on crutches for the playoffs is not something anyone at the league office wants.

The Angels have no such postseason concerns and haven’t had them for most of the season. Once again they’re terrible. As they have been for almost the entirety of Trout’s career. They’ve made the postseason only once in his career — back in 2014, losing the LDS in three games — and do not appear poised to put a winner on the field any time soon. Trout is still in his prime, obviously, but like all players he’ll either slow down or break down eventually. Given the state of the club, I’m not sure I’d put a ton of money on them being good, let alone consistently good, while Trout is still the best or even one of the few best players in baseball. The upside to me seems to be an Al Kaline situation with the Tigers, in which the team finally put it together behind him only after he began to age and miss time to injuries. Having the best player in baseball outside of the playoffs looking in is not something anyone at the league office should want either.

Yet here we are.

Injuries happen. Every contender is missing at least one and in some cases several important players. But for one MVP candidate to miss the postseason this year and another one to miss the postseason every year is a major bummer for a league that has a tough go of it marketing itself even under the best of circumstances.