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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.

Maddon: Shohei Ohtani won’t pitch again for Angels this year

Shohei Ohtani
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Shohei Ohtani won’t pitch again this season for the Los Angeles Angels after straining his right forearm in his second start, manager Joe Maddon says.

Ohtani likely will return to the Angels’ lineup as their designated hitter this week, Maddon said Tuesday night before the club opened a road series against the Seattle Mariners.

The Angels’ stance on Ohtani is unsurprising after the club announced he had strained the flexor pronator mass near the elbow of his pitching arm. The two-way star’s recovery from the strain requires him to abstain from throwing for four to six weeks, which covers most of the shortened 2020 season.

“I’m not anticipating him pitching at all this year,” Maddon said. “Any kind of throwing program is going to be very conservative.”

Ohtani was injured Sunday in the second inning of his second start since returning to the mound following Tommy John surgery in late 2018. Ohtani issued five walks during the 42-pitch inning against the Houston Astros, with his velocity dropping later in the frame.

The arm injury is another obstacle in Ohtani’s path to becoming the majors’ first true two-way player in decades. He made 10 mound starts as a rookie in 2018 before injuring his elbow, but he served as the Angels’ regular designated hitter last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Ohtani has pitched in only three games since June 2018, but the Angels still believe in Ohtani’s ability to be a two-way player, Maddon said.

“I’m seeing that he can,” Maddon said. “We’ve just got to get past the arm maladies and figure that out. But I’ve seen it. He’s just such a high-end arm, and we’ve seen what he can do in the batter’s box. Now maybe it might get to the point where he may choose to do one thing over the other and express that to us. I know he likes to hit. In my mind’s eye, he’s still going to be able to do this.”

The veteran manager believes Ohtani will benefit from a full spring training and a normal season. Ohtani wasn’t throwing at full strength for a starter when the coronavirus pandemic shut down spring training in March because he wasn’t expected to pitch until May as he returned from surgery.

“Going into a regular season with a normal number of starts and all the things that permit guys to be ready for a year, that’s what we need to see is some normalcy before you make that kind of determination,” Maddon said.

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