Bob Klapisch: Baseball’s 10 people to watch in 2017


By Bob Klapisch - The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)



There’s nothing like Opening Day to remind you why you fell in love with baseball in the first place. The renewal begins in February with pitchers and catchers and suddenly, six weeks later, your brain function has been altered. All that matters is the road to October.

Baseball is back, wrapping you in a tight squeeze for the rest of the summer. The optimism is so thick you can breathe it. For now, every team has at least one compelling story line. Here’s our top 10.

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David Price

Depending on whose explanation you trust, Price either has a bad flexor mass surrounding the elbow or a ruptured ligament in the same area. Or both. Either way, he’s out until May at the earliest. The Red Sox say the injury is serious enough that if the 31-year-old Price were younger — with more time to recover and resume his career — he would be a candidate for Tommy John surgery. All this is bad news for a team that’s supposed to be heading to the World Series.

Boston is still favored to win the pennant, but Price’s extended absence makes it imperative for Chris Sale to make a fast assimilation to Red Sox Nation. Backing up Sale will be Steven Wright, Eduardo Rodriguez and Kyle Kendrick. Pitching could be the Sox’ lingering vulnerability.

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Kyle Schwarber

There were a million reasons to ride shotgun with the Cubs as they ended their 108-year championship drought; Schwarber’s story was one of the best. His return from knee surgery wasn’t just fast, it was a medical miracle. No one expected the 24-year-old slugger to play again in 2016, yet after just a two-game warm-up in the Arizona Fall League, he was in the lineup in the World Series and batted .412 against the Indians.

What can Schwarber do for an entire season? We still don’t know. He appeared in only 69 games as a rookie in 2015, then had just four at-bats last year before blowing out his knee in a horrific collision with Dexter Fowler in April. A healthy Schwarber has an explosive swing and will make the Cubs even more likely to win the Series than they were in ‘16.

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Noah Syndergaard

As if the National League needed another reason to dread facing the Mets’ ace, his change-up is now locked and loaded and ready for action. Syndergaard will use it as a steady third pitch in arsenal that’s already sick. The right-hander averaged 98-mph with the fastball, and he couples it with a 91-mph slider that’s all but unhittable.

Mix in a high 80s change-up that has down-and-in action to a right-handed hitter, and it turns into a recipe for a potential no-hitter every time Syndergaard takes the mound. But wait, there’s a flip-side to the mushrooming power of Thor’s game. Motion analysis expert Tom House says there’s a 60 percent chance Syndergaard will be injured this season because he wasn’t throwing during his heavy weight-lifting regimen this winter. We’ll see.

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Bryce Harper

Which slugger do you want to talk about — the one who hit 42 HRs in 2015 or his alter-ego who slipped to 24 last year? Harper also experienced an 87-point drop-off in batting average, which leads to legitimate questions about the Nationals’ chances in 2017. They can’t beat the Mets without him.

Also worth watching is Stephen Strasburg, whose season was cut short last September because of a torn pronator tendon in his right arm. The right-hander sprinted to a 13-0 start but finished at 15-4. He’s decided to work from the stretch full-time this season, an unusual move for a power pitcher. Then again, Strasburg has fallen in love with his slider over the years, throwing it nearly 20 percent of the time after never using it his first four seasons. It’ll be interesting to see where this evolution takes him.

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Jose Quintana

Don’t think the Yankees weren’t daydreaming about having the left-hander in their rotation after he took a no-hitter into the fifth inning against Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. Quintana is a master of sequencing and perfect location to out-think opponents. He threw first-pitch strikes to 15 batters in the WBC and almost led Colombia to an upset over the heavily-favored Americans.

But it’s not like anyone needed to be convinced how much Quintana could help. The Astros, Pirates and Rockies are among those waiting for the White Sox to finally deal him. But Quintana, who’s owed just $37 million through 2020, will come at a heavy price in prospects, probably more than the Yankees are willing to pay.

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Gleyber Torres

Would it be wrong of us to start the clock on the kid’s stardom? There isn’t a scout anywhere who doesn’t think Torres, a natural shortstop, isn’t headed for a long run of excellence in the big leagues. The only question is how soon the Yankees summon him to the Bronx.

Let’s remember, though, Torres only turned 20 three months ago, and he’s yet to play above Class A. He’s been one of the youngest players throughout his minor league career, with stops in low-A Midwest League in 2015 and high-A Carolina League last year. Joe Girardi says, “I don’t think he’s fazed by the situation” but the Yankees are nevertheless being cautious, for now placing Torres at Class AA.

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Edwin Encarnacion

Say hello to the difference-maker who the Indians think will bring them their first championship since 1948. Encarnacion had to wait until January to find a new team, then capitalized on the Tribe’s all-in mode for 2017. The slugger signed for three years, $46 million and brings with him the distinction of being the only player in the majors with at least 30 HRs in each of the last five seasons. That’s a perfect fit for Cleveland, which had the second-fewest home runs among the ten teams that made it to the playoffs last year.

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Marcus Stroman

Encarnacion will be missed, Jose Bautsta is in his decline phase, as is Russell Martin and almost no one thinks the Blue Jays can catch the Red Sox. So why is Stroman on this list? Because he’s a Cy Young-caliber supernova whose performance in the WBC merits one more mention. He took a no-hitter into the seventh inning against a previously undefeated Puerto Rico team, throttling them with a power two-seamer that he used nearly 75 percent of the time. If Stroman can maintain that kind of dominance this summer, he’ll give the Jays at least a fighting chance for the wild card.

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Theo Epstein

Fortune Magazine recently dubbed the Cubs’ GM as the World’s Greatest Leader. That’s no small achievement — Epstein even beat out the Pope on the publication’s top 10 list. Obviously, breaking two curses in the course of his career, first in Fenway, then at Wrigley, is something to be admired. But so is Epstein’s humility. He waved away any notion that he’s special.

“I can’t even get my dog to stop peeing in my house,” Epstein told ESPN’sBuster Olney.

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Manny Machado

He’s had two straight seasons of 35 or more HRs and two consecutive top-5 MVP finishes. Machado is a monster, even if he’ll probably be unable to lift the Orioles higher than fourth place. The slugger will hit his home runs while the Orioles count down the days until he’s a free agent after 2018. There’s too much money waiting for him even to think of returning to Camden Yards. The Yankees are already breathing heavily.

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By Bob Klapisch

The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)