It’s the final day of our skills competition balloting, and I thought it would be fun to pick one skill per team that is worth the price of admission – aside from those skills we already included in the voting. This list is guaranteed to get you so excited for the baseball season that you’ll spend Sunday night watching old highlights on YouTube instead of the Super Bowl.
Chicago Cubs: Javier Baez’s defense at second base. We saw this all October – the instincts, the athleticism, the arm strength, the quick hands on tag plays – and he just needs to improve his consistency and focus.
Washington Nationals: Trea Turner’s speed. We need a footrace between Turner and Billy Hamilton. I envision a made-for-TV special, or maybe part of the All-Star festivities. We can invite other speedsters. Make it happen, MLB!
Texas Rangers: Yu Darvish’s curveball. When you hear about the best curveballs in the game, you rarely hear about Darvish’s, but batters are hitting just .129 against it in Darvish’s career. What makes it extra tough is he’ll sometimes throw it as a slow eephus-type pitch.
Boston Red Sox: Dustin Pedroia getting dirty. He’s obviously hugely popular in Boston, but has played in David Ortiz’s shadow in recent seasons, and then Mookie Betts’ shadow last year, and now Chris Sale and Andrew Benintendi will steal much of the attention. He quietly scored 105 runs last year, played great defense and never gives less than 100 percent.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Corey Seager’s power to all fields. Unlike most young power hitters, Seager doesn’t rely on pulling the ball for his home runs. Of his 26 homers, four went to left field, 10 to center field and 12 to right field. As he learns to hunt for pitches on the inner half of the plate, the pull total – and his overall total – should climb higher.
Toronto Blue Jays: Kevin Pillar’s defense. He’s lost out to Kevin Kiermaier in the Gold Glove voting the past two seasons, but that’s kind of like choosing between Mays and Mantle as the best center fielder in New York in the 1950s. Pillar is so acrobatic in center he must moonlight as a Cirque du Soleil performer in the offseason.
Baltimore Orioles: Mark Trumbo’s ability to crush fastballs. Daniel Murphy hit over .400 against fastballs, but Trumbo led the majors with 33 home runs against fastballs, slugging .706. Can he do it again? Trumbo quieted his pre-swing movement in 2016 with a less aggressive leg kick and his fly ball rate increased slightly with a higher launch angle – boom, 47 home runs.
San Francisco Giants: Brandon Crawford’s defense. He’s won two Gold Gloves and finished 12th in the NL MVP voting in 2016, but the emergence of Seager and the other young shortstops means Crawford’s all-around excellence still gets overlooked.
New York Mets: Noah Syndergaard’s fastball velocity. Here’s the weird thing: Batters hit .283 against it with a .326 wOBA – which ranked just 25th out of 74 qualified starters. OK, sometimes numbers just get in the way of a good tale. We’ll be hearing stories about Syndergaard’s fastball decades from now.
Seattle Mariners: Nelson Cruz’s power. He can look bad when he guesses wrong, but when he guesses right, fans in the left-field stands better put on their hard hats -- he crushes long home runs thanks to an MLB-leading average exit velocity of 95.9 mph.
Detroit Tigers: Miguel Cabrera’s hit tool. He led the majors with a .332 average against offspeed stuff – a reflection of his ability to go the opposite way. As Justin Verlander once said, “I think I heard it explained best: He is a 260-pound slap hitter.” And sometimes those slap hits travel 450 feet.
Houston Astros: George Springer’s all-around game. It’s hard to get headlines on a team with Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa, but Springer is one of the most exciting players in the game with personality to match.
Kansas City Royals: Danny Duffy’s slider. One of the hardest-throwing left-handed starters, Duffy had a breakout season and signed a big contract extension in the offseason in large part because his slider turned into a wipeout pitch in 2016 with a strikeout rate of 41 percent.
Miami Marlins: Christian Yelich’s hit tool. He learned to loft the ball more last year and raised his home run total from seven to 21. He’s still just 25, works the strike zone well (72 walks) and blisters fastballs (.349). If he can improve against offspeed stuff and cut down on his K’s, there’s a batting title in his future.
Chicago White Sox: Tim Anderson’s jump throw. Anderson is still raw and has to stop swinging at everything within a mile radius of home plate, but he’s an exciting reason for White Sox to still care about 2017 as they rebuild.
Colorado Rockies: Jon Gray’s slider. Ignore that 4.61 ERA, which is pretty good for a starter who has to pitch in Coors Field. Gray looks like he’s going to be the best starter in Rockies history if he can stay healthy, in large degree due to two plus breaking balls, including a slider that held batters to a .185 average --.150 at Coors. I mean, the guy struck out 16 batters in a game at Coors. OK, it was the Padres, but it was still one of the more impressive outings of 2016.
Milwaukee Brewers: Keon Broxton’s athleticism. His defensive metrics in center were terrific during his half season in the bigs. He stole 23 bases in 75 games. He has a little pop. He does not, however, have Gorman Thomas’ gut.
Philadelphia Phillies: Odubel Herrera’s bat flips. Yes, bat flipping is a skill. Don't argue about this. Just don’t do it on foul balls.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Paul Goldschmidt’s base stealing. Is Goldschmidt fast? No. Can he steal bases? Yes. He swiped 32 in 2016 and ranks 10th in the majors in steals over the past two seasons. And if you enjoy good hitting, don’t run out for your Churro Dog when he’s up.
Tampa Bay Rays: Kevin Kiermaier’s arm. Wait, you’re thinking, you said this list wouldn’t include anybody already used in our skills competition. This isn’t cheating. We used Kiermaier’s amazing range and athleticism in his outfield. But he also has one of the strongest throwing arms.
Cincinnati Reds: Joey Votto’s plate discipline. It’s a beautiful thing, waiting for a pitch to drive rather than hacking at something two inches off the plate and hitting a weak grounder to second just because you’re supposed to be an RBI guy.