MLB poised for historic 2016 season

Baseball fans, rejoice! Winter is over and Opening day has arrived. While it may be sentimental to refer to the sport as ‘America’s pastime,’ fans who dismiss this year’s season do themselves a disservice. This season promises to be as interest- ing as any in recent memory. A decade removed from the ‘steroid era,’ the MLB has a bevy of young stars and a fascinating mix of teams. It’s a new day in professional baseball and you would do well to wake up and pay it mind. Here are a few compelling storylines to watch.

Though the Cubs have gone longer without a championship than any North American professional sports team, ever, this may be the year for Chicago. The Cubs enter the season as the best team in base- ball. They sport the best lineup in the game, with veteran first baseman Anthony Rizzo surrounded by an incredible pool of young talent. Third baseman Kris Bryant and left fielder/catcher Kyle Schwarber were impressive as rookies last year, with Bryant winning rookie of the year and Schwarber blasting 16 home runs in only 69 games, setting the team’s postseason home run record. Throw in second year shortstop Addison Russell, a strong pitching staff led by Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta and the consistently excellent John Lester, and a deep roster fortified with proven veterans Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward, and this team looks downright scary. At the helm is manager Joe Maddon, widely acknowl- edged as one of the game’s best tacticians. The Cubs are expertly constructed: young, deep and talented, and certainly a favorite to win the World Series.

If the Cubs are to end their champion- ship drought, they may well have to beat the Kansas City Royals, who are looking for their third straight American League pennant. The Royals are an odd team. Their style of play contradicts the accepted theories of what constitutes a successful baseball team, yet they enter the year as the defending World Series champions and have a legitimate chance to repeat.

In an era when teams have accepted high strikeout totals in return for hit- ters who walk regularly and possess some power, the Royals value hitters who make contact, avoid strikeouts and put the ball in play. First baseman Eric Hosmer and outfielders Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain return as the mainstays of a talented line- up. They struck out 144 fewer times than any other team in 2015. The Royals also led the majors the past two years in defensive runs saved, had three Gold Glove winners last year and have what is arguably the best outfield in a generation. This, along with their flame-throwing bullpen, makes for one of the best defensive teams in the MLB.

Turning to individual level, all fans should pay attention to Bryce Harper of the Nationals and Mike Trout of the Angels. Trout, simply put, has been the best player in the world since his rookie season in 2013. In fact, most stat mea- surements show Trout to be the greatest player at this point in a career, ever. The centerfielder displays a transcendent mix of power, speed and defense.

Unlike Trout, Harper has only had one truly excellent season. But at an age when most prospects are still trying to break into the big leagues, the 23-year-old Harper posted one of the greatest performances of all time last season. Smashing 42 home runs and boasting an ungodly split of .330/.460/.649, Harper won the National League’s MVP award and enters this sea- son as the game’s most feared hitter and – with his brash personality and illustrious head of hair – its most compelling person- ality.

bowlin@stolaf.edu

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