2017 MLB Preview: Baseball's Youth Movement Takes Center Stage

Coming off an improbable Chicago Cubs World Series win, the Dodgers, Red Sox, Nationals and Indians look to rise to the top this year

Mookie Betts, Kris Bryant and Corey Seager are a few of MLB's young guns coming into 2017. Credit: Getty (3)

Dansby Swanson opened his Major League Baseball debut with a bang last August. In a game against the Minnesota Twins, the Atlanta Braves shortstop swatted two singles, going 2-for-4 at the plate. He would later finish out 2016 on fire too, grinding out 39 hits in his first 37 career games, while batting .302 for the season.

Selected in the 2015 draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks, a trade eventually sent the Georgia-born player back home.

"What I remember as a kid growing up, was the culture of winning", Swanson says by phone to Rolling Stone. "When you put on an Atlanta Braves cap or the uniform it meant that you were going to win the division every year."

Going into his what will be his first full season as a starter with the Braves, Swanson is no less adamant about playing his part to build the club back to its success in the 1990s when Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine were at the top of the rotation. 

"I have an extreme passion for this place, Atlanta and everything it stands for," Swanson says. He mentions that even though he was a year and a half old when the Braves won the 1995 World Series, "watching Braves baseball was a family ritual almost every single night."

With that big, big moment of Opening Day here, Swanson is one marquee name in an impressive bumper crop of exciting twenty-something players. He's also one of nine young players featured in a commercial for an initiative called #CapsOn, in which Major League Baseball and its 30 clubs are partnering with New Era, to get fans to wear their team's cap as proudly as Swanson wears his own Braves lid. Regarding 2017, Swanson says he hopes to make his contributions early to Atlanta's momentum.

"People don't realize how hard of a mental sport it is," Swanson says. "But when you've got a locker room full of guys who want to win, anything is possible. Being part of that motivates me."

After placing last in the NL East in 2016, the Braves are in the midst of a new beginning. They kick off their season in New York, returning April 14th to their home opener in new digs at Atlanta's new 41,500-seat SunTrust Park. Swanson is the youngest buck in a Braves' starting lineup made up mostly of journeyed thirty-something players that also just added old stallions Bartolo Colón and knuckleballer R. A. Dickey, who are both in their 40s, to their pitching rotation.

"The most telling stat in my mind is consistency night in, night out," Swanson adds. "We have a bunch of guys up and down the lineup who can do that on the mound, or out in the field. It's extremely cool to be able to witness guys who can take care of that business, to get ready for this season."

The Braves' situation probably doesn't constitute a hard rebuild as much as that of the Chicago White Sox, who cleaned house, trading star lefty pitcher Chris Sale and outfielder Adam Eaton for Yoan Moncada and six other young players this winter. To their advantage, Atlanta does currently have the best pool of new prospects in their farm system, according to Baseball America. Elsewhere across baseball, 2017 features a new order of talent that the Braves and others will have to wrestle with.

Since the retirement of legends like Yankee Derek Jeter and more recently Red Sox hit machine David Ortiz, baseball's new youth movement hasn't hesitated to fill in and make an impact. Chicago Cubs MVP Kris Bryant, 25, and Cleveland Indians shortstop wunderkind Francisco Lindor, 23, lit up the boards all season in 2016. And in 2015, young Mets arms Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom together pitched the Mets to their first Series since 2000.

Another place where the future of the game can be seen is in Houston. The Astros have made the postseason just once since they lost World Series in 2005, but in the last two seasons their younger stars have changed infield play into an artform. Shortstop and 2015 AL Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa couples well with the power arms of pint-sized second baseman José Altuve and third baseman Alex Bregman. The three are crafting Houston to be a huge part baseball's resurgence and point to the AL West being all Astros for now.

Over in Washington, D.C., the new President may not be throwing out the season's first pitch, but baseball still looks tremendous in the nation's turbulent capital. The Nationals have placed first in the NL East and made playoffs three times in the last five seasons, principally on the strength of world class pitching that includes 2016 Cy Young winner Max Scherzer. Plus their field looks impressive with Eaton joining four-time All-Star Bryce Harper and 23 year old Trea Turner. Last season Turner slugged .567 while stealing 33 bases in just 73 games. If 2017 isn't the year for this 48 year old franchise to win its first Series, who knows when.

AL East-bound and down
Just outside the Nats' domain, the Baltimore Orioles have found themselves in a similar circling pattern, with solid season performances, and yet an inability to get deeper into October. With third base ace Manny Machado and their underrated second baseman Jonathan Schoop, the O's future looks bright. But it will be interesting to see if and when Baltimore can wrest away second place from rivals in the AL East anytime soon.

Meanwhile, the New York Yankees, like Atlanta, are also retooling with younger players. Catcher Gary Sanchez and first baseman Greg Bird, both great hitters, are one centerpiece of the Yankees' reboot. Yet both AL East teams have their work cut out with 2017's Boston Red Sox.

A popular favorite for the World Series, Boston is as stacked as the Cubs were last season. Like Swanson, left fielder Andrew Benintendi, 22, stands out as another potential superstar of baseball's newest generation. He'll play across the park from Mookie Betts in right, another future perennial MVP candidate who demonstrated power and consistency with 31 homers, 113 RBIs, and .534 slugging in his first full season. Betts also has speed and finesse – enough to bag 26 stolen bases in 2016 – and provides a spark in a lineup rounded out by shortstop Xander Bogaerts, second baseman Dustin Pedroia, and centerfielder Jackie Bradley. On top of position players, the Red Sox have an enviable pitching rotation, with Sale joining CY Young winner Rick Porcello, fellow left-hander David Price, as well as Drew Pomeranz and Steven Wright.

Sure, the Red Sox might bleed excitement. But last year their postseason fire was quickly extinguished in by an injury-wracked Cleveland Indians team. A bonus for Cleveland is that two of their best starters, Carlos Currasco and Danny Salazar, seem fit and ready for the mound again, alongside Corey Kluber, who was excellent from April deep into November, not to mention Andrew Miller, arguably the best middle reliever in the game.

Cleveland's elder players, like Jason Kipnis (2B) and Carlos Santana (1B), outperformed at-bat last season in the absence of Michael Brantley, and could do so again for 2017, should Kipnis shake off a reported preseason shoulder injury. Even better, Jose Ramírez and Lindor provide more reliable bats for a city savoring one more championship to match the Cavs' first NBA title.

Can the Cubs repeat, Dodgers rematch?
Certainly the defending world champion Chicago Cubs remain strong in their batting lineup and at every field position. Their infield especially boasts much more of that young, exciting stuff that makes for sports dynasties. Bryant, along with Addison Russell, Javy Baez, and Willson Contreras excel as a unit with Anthony Rizzo at first. It's likely that sometime catcher and outfielder Kyle Schwarber will figure in at both positions, depending how manager Joe Maddon chooses to deploy him and 36 year old utility man Ben Zobrist each game. Zobrist, the World Series MVP, is listed for Opening Day at 2B, yet spent much of the postseason comfortably in left field.

Chicago's depth doesn't mean, however, that the Cubs are done churning out top-caliber new talent. Anyone who's kept a close eye on 22 year old Albert Almora this preseason – especially last Sunday when he blasted two homers and a double in a 22-4 win over the Reds – sees another game changer developing.

Addison Russell tells Rolling Stone that his team's combination of raw talent, postseason experience, and chemistry under Maddon is a great starting point, but the Cubs won't be resting on their shiny new rings. 

"Experiencing it all, (the World Series) was good for us moving into the future," Russell says. "We're all good, but only with more hard work are we going to get better at the end of the day."

Aiming to topple the Cubs' long-term imperial aspirations, the Los Angeles Dodgers are also another team to get excited about. During winter they re-upped maestro closer Kenley Jansen with a five year, $80 million contract, a no-brainer move. L.A. also brings back rotation man Rich Hill, along with 31 year old third baseman Justin Turner and Adrián González at first, who will be 35 in May. Few baseball pundits have talked about whether age equals depreciation at Dodger Stadium, or how much that creates a sense of urgency to win a World Series…now.

But the Dodgers' arsenal also looks dangerous with the '16 NL Rookie of the Year Corey Seager, and 20-year-old left hander Julio Urías in the same rotation as three-time Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw. Each season Kershaw's speed seems to capture baseball's new zeitgeist in his every single pitch.

If 2017 is indeed the Dodgers' year to bring back the Commissioner's Trophy for the first time since 1988, all roads run through the Dodgers' pitching rotation, with the 29 year old Kershaw as the perfect lynchpin.