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MLB preview: Harper one of 17 burning questions for 2017

Matt Youmans
VSiN senior editor

March 31, 2017 10:07 AM
BryceHarper
Is Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals ready to return to MVP form after a disappointing 2016 season?
© USA Today Sports Images

In a departure from past springs, Bryce Harper has become a man of few words and no bold predictions. He has been unusually quiet this March, appearing more determined and maybe even humbled.

Those are good signs for the Washington Nationals.

Two years ago, Harper was brash. He talked about the Nationals’ star-studded pitching rotation and famously said, “Where’s my ring?” He said he planned to bring a championship to D.C. Last year, he perpetuated the theory that he soon could be seeking a $500 million contract.

Harper has yet to reach a World Series, and last year he batted .243. He’s got some work to do.

So this spring, Harper has been a man of action. Various stories report he is a mainstay in the weight room, showing off a more muscular 230-pound frame. At the plate, he’s focused, leading the majors with eight home runs.

It seems he has been around a long time, but the 24-year-old phenom from Las Vegas is just entering what should be the prime of his career.

In 2015, Harper hit .330 with 42 home runs and 99 RBIs. He was National League MVP. In 2016, he sunk into a late-season slump and produced only 24 homers. He looked nothing like the best player in baseball.

Is Harper set to return to 40-homer form and lead the Nationals deep into October? That’s one of 17 questions to consider with the 2017 season opening this weekend.

Will the Chicago Cubs win 96 games or more?
The Cubs’ regular-season win total is 95½ at the South Point and 96 at the Westgate sports book. That’s the highest total in MLB, but it also projects a significant drop from their 103-58 record last year. A championship team remains mostly intact, minus center fielder Dexter Fowler. Kyle Schwarber, who missed almost all of last season, is the new leadoff hitter and left fielder. It’s a team with a ton of young talent. There are no obvious signs the Cubs will decline.

Are the Cleveland Indians the best team in baseball?
A healthy and loaded starting rotation. Andrew Miller waiting in the bullpen. A better-looking lineup. A great manager, Terry Francona, calling the shots. There are plenty of indications the Indians could be a 100-win team. After losing a dramatic Game 7 to the Cubs, Cleveland is in position for another World Series run.

How much will the Boston Red Sox miss Big Papi?
Boston is off a 93-win season and expected to win more than 90 again this season. Chris Sale was an outstanding addition to the rotation. He should be the ace, especially with left-hander David Price dealing with elbow soreness. The Red Sox still will score runs in bunches, but no lineup in the majors lost a bigger presence than David Ortiz, who batted .315 with 38 homers and 127 RBIs. Ortiz retired, and the Red Sox probably will regret his decision.

Is Mike Trout primed for another MVP season?
The Angels were an injury-riddled 74-win team a year ago. Despite their losing ways, Trout won his second MVP award. He hit .315 with 29 homers, 100 RBIs and 30 stolen bases. He led the majors in runs (123), walks (116) and on-base percentage (.441). Trout never has finished lower than second in American League MVP voting in his five full years in the majors. Los Angeles is lucky to have the best player in baseball, and trading him would be a major mistake.

If Trout is not the AL MVP, who will it be?
No player has repeated as NL MVP since 2009. Trout nearly won the AL award three years in a row. In addition to his offensive prowess, Trout is an elite defensive center fielder. But he has competition from Boston outfielder Mookie Betts, Houston infielders Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa and pair of third basemen, Baltimore’s Manny Machado and Toronto’s Josh Donaldson. And there’s probably a contender or two to be named later.

How can Kris Bryant top that?
Bryant is his own tough act to follow. The 25-year-old from Las Vegas was the NL MVP and helped the Cubs end a 108-year World Series drought. He is Chicago’s biggest superstar since Michael Jordan. Is it possible to do any more? Bryant batted .292 with 39 home runs and 102 RBIs last year. If he cuts down on his strikeouts (199 as a rookie and 154 last year), hits .300 and wins another World Series, that would be more.

Who’s the best in the NL West?
The Los Angeles Dodgers’ win total is 94, ahead of San Francisco at 88. The Dodgers finished 91-71 and four games in front of the Giants last year. The Giants blew 32 save opportunities last season, so to try to close the gap, they signed closer Mark Melancon, who recorded 147 saves in 162 chances with Pittsburgh and Washington in the past four seasons. Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto will keep San Francisco in the hunt for the division title.

Will Clayton Kershaw top 16½ wins?
The Dodgers have won the West four years in a row, led by Kershaw, who’s arguably baseball’s best starter. But, surprisingly, Kershaw has won more than 16 games only once in the past five seasons. That was in 2014, when he went 21-3. Last year, he was limited to 21 starts and went 12-4. If L.A. has a weakness, look at the rotation behind Kershaw and start asking questions. The Dodgers need Kershaw at his best.

Are the New York Mets’ starters set to dominate?
If in good health, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler will form the best five-man rotation in the majors. Yet there are health concerns with all five guys. The Mets have the definition of a high-risk, high-reward pitching staff.

Is the Houston Astros’ loaded lineup unstoppable?
The Red Sox (878), Colorado Rockies (845) and Cubs (808) topped the majors in runs scored last season. Expect the Astros to score around 800 this year. Here’s the lineup: George Springer, Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Carlos Beltran, Josh Reddick, Yulieski Gurriel, Brian McCann/Evan Gattis and Nori Aoki. Some of the names might be unfamiliar, but all of those players can rake.

Is Gary Sanchez the real deal in the Bronx?
The New York Yankees are ready to unleash the Baby Bombers. Sanchez, a 24-year-old catcher, will be in the spotlight after a sensational 2016 debut. His debut consisted of only 53 games late in the season, but he ripped 20 home runs and resembled the next Babe Ruth. In New York, expectations tend to be unrealistic, and the baby Bambino set the bar high.

So who is Dansby Swanson?
He’s the leading candidate for NL Rookie of the Year, but he plays for the Atlanta Braves so his talent is still a secret. That’s about to change. Arizona drafted Swanson No. 1 overall in 2015 and then made a ridiculously bad decision to trade him to Atlanta in a steal of a deal for underachieving pitcher Shelby Miller. Swanson, a shortstop, was called up in August and hit .302 in 38 games.

Which side of Zack Greinke will show in Arizona?
As the No. 2 to Clayton Kershaw in L.A., Greinke was in his comfort zone. He went 19-3 with a 1.66 ERA for the Dodgers in 2015. As the Diamondbacks’ overpaid ace in 2016, he went 13-7 with a 4.37 ERA. Greinke is an oddball, but the bigger issue is the decreased velocity on his fastball.

Will Giancarlo Stanton lead the majors in home runs?
No player hits for more power than Miami’s 6-foot-6 superstar, but he was limited to 27 homers in 119 games last year. He hit 27 homers in only 74 games in 2015. His career high of 37 came in 2014. The Westgate’s prop number for most homers in the majors this year is 45½. Stanton’s prop is 34½. The home run king last year was Baltimore’s Mark Trumbo with 47. If he stays healthy, Stanton could hit 50.

Are the San Diego Padres the worst team in baseball?
The Padres’ posted win total of 66 says yes. The starting rotation is so weak it’s comical. The Padres look worse after winning only 68 games last year. If San Diego is not in the MLB basement, it could be Cincinnati or Milwaukee. Minnesota (59-103) was baseball’s worst team a year ago.

Will there be a Cubs-Indians sequel in the World Series?
Bet on one of the teams returning. If both teams make it back, it surely would be a better sequel than Caddyshack II.

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