Major League Baseball's 162-game schedule offers hope of forgiveness for those who stumble out the chute, but it definitely doesn't promise it. There's that old saying that you can't win a division in April but you can lose one. And while that is not mathematically true, it is accurate enough to inspire the strategizing currently taking place in the various Spring Training camps.
Every team that bills itself as a true contender wants to avoid those first-half foibles that can corrupt a campaign, but, for these six clubs, a strong start might be especially important.
Kansas City Royals
The Royals spent all winter trying to get their payroll under control. It's not that they were punting on 2017, necessarily, but, in moving Wade Davis and Jarrod Dyson and not re-signing Kendrys Morales and Edinson Volquez, they were trying to claw their way back from the fiscal disappointment of a 2016 season that was basically budgeted under the assumption of a deep October run that never transpired.
After the tragic death of Yordano Ventura, the Royals invested in two-year deals with Jason Hammel and Travis Wood to basically put the payroll back where it was last year.
But if this doesn't work, if the Royals endure another wave of injuries or simply can't hang in the AL Central early on, it's no secret that there will be incentive to market pending free agents Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and/or Lorenzo Cain. The Royals are obviously unlikely to re-sign all three, and, given the financial parameters in play, it's debatable whether they'd even extend a qualifying offer (last year those were worth $17.2 million for one season) to all three in an effort to recoup a Draft pick (and the compensation system itself has changed, with free agents who sign for less than $50 million worth only a compensation pick at the end of the second round).
In the ideal scenario, Andrew McCutchen rebounds to something resembling his old, MVP level, and the Pirates' resurgence -- perhaps illuminated by an National League Cy Young Award-worthy season from Gerrit Cole and breakouts from Tyler Glasnow and Josh Bell -- is similarly strong.
But if Cutch is great (or even merely good) and the Pirates are, well, not, we all know where this could lead by the deadline. The difficulty of moving McCutchen over the winter was that the Pirates still valued him as an elite talent while other clubs were trying to get him at a discount off a down year. Having embraced the move to right field (after some explanation on the part of the Pirates), Cutch has voiced his motivation to have, as he put it, "a monster year, whether it's in Pittsburgh or somewhere else."
Given the strength of the Cubs and the prospect presence of Austin Meadows, "somewhere else" is not a totally outlandish idea. The only thing that's going to stop that conversation from continuing and picking up steam is a strong first half from the Buccos as a unit.
No, I'm not identifying the Astros as a team all that likely to sell midseason. But the fact that a 7-17 April last year basically torched their season will invite plenty of public -- and, perhaps, internal -- anxiety should 2017 not start well.
At the moment, Houston is placing a big bet on its in-house rotation options, including a recovering Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers. Not for lack of effort, they didn't land any of the big fish in the pitching trade market, and it will be interesting to see if that comes back to bite them or if all the concern about their starting set proves to be much ado about nothing.
This looks like a strong team with a more balanced offense, and, even with Jose Quintana still with the White Sox, the Astros are a popular pick to win the AL West. Still, they have a lot to prove as a result of the way last season unfolded -- or, rather, unraveled.
The Motor City fire sale so many expected did not occur over the winter, much to the relief of this club's core.
"Was I worried? Yeah," Justin Verlander told reporters this week. "Did it happen? No. Am I happy? Yes."
But how long that happiness will linger is uncertain. The Tigers feel like a team giving it one last ride. They are a superstar-laden squad with some obvious depth issues, and they'll likely go as far as their pitching takes them (that pitching, for whatever it's worth, has largely been suspect this spring, with Verlander's performance serving as one of few bright spots). If it doesn't take them far enough, upgrading the farm system is a must for the long-term health of the franchise. The recent passing of uber-competitive owner Mike Ilitch means the days of particularly aggressive spending might be over, and a slow start could lead to a mandate to cut costs wherever possible or practical.
The issue, of course, is the same one the Tigers ran into this winter: Their stars simply aren't all that marketable because of the huge contracts attached to them. But pending free-agent slugger J.D. Martinez would be a pretty obvious in-season trade chip, and Ian Kinsler, who is owed $11 million this season and $12 million via a team option next, would likely have value if second base becomes an area of need among contenders.
As we discussed in this space last week, projection systems are down on the Rangers, and uncertainty over the health of free-agent acquisition Andrew Cashner doesn't help matters much. It bears repeating that if the bullpen performance we saw down the stretch last season holds true, if Cole Hamels, Yu Darvish and Martin Perez all come as advertised in the rotation, and if the lineup gets a boost from a healthy Shin-Soo Choo, full seasons of Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Gomez and the return of Mike Napoli, Texas can and should be competitive.
But what if it all goes haywire? What if the iffy injury picture in the rotation is a net negative, the lineup, for one reason or another, is lackluster and the regression from a historic record in one-run games is steep?
The Rangers would be a fascinating club if the projections are right and they're on the bubble or firmly on the backburner come midseason, because, barring an extension, they have two of the top pending free agents in Darvish and Lucroy. At the moment, it's hard to imagine them reversing course from recent years and going with a summer sell-off, but there's no denying this club enters the season with some key question marks.
The initial days of Rockies camp were happy times. The clubhouse was confident, the early evaluations of their Cactus play were positive. The only controversy was over their new, lighter shade of purple they were wearing.
Alas, these days, the concern is over the deep shade of purple associated with bumps and bruises. The Rox have been hit hard in recent days, with key free-agent acquisition Ian Desmond's hand smashed by an inside fastball, Chad Qualls turning up with elbow trouble, emerging outfielder David Dahl succumbing to a stress reaction in his rib and starting catcher Tom Murphy fracturing his arm. And the biggest, most sobering news of all was that Chad Bettis' cancer has spread, forcing him away from the rotation while he undergoes chemotherapy.
It's just been a brutal couple of weeks in the Rockies' world, and you wonder if their season of high hopes -- a year in which they expect to take a big step forward behind a loaded lineup and a burgeoning young rotation -- is coming undone before it has even started. A strong start would wash away the negative vibes and buy them time before the roster comes closer to whole. A slow start would of course invite speculation that pending free agent Carlos Gonzalez and perhaps Tyler Chatwood could be shopped midseason.
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Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor, MLB.com columnist and MLB Network contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.