With a new season comes new hope. We’re a month into the 2017 MLB season and we’ve already seen some great performances from a handful of players many thought were past their prime or wouldn’t be able to get back into form after an injury. It’s always fun to watch success stories; how can you not cheer on the guy who is killing it in his first year back in the majors (Eric Thames)?
Now I know it’s only May and a lot of the hot starters will cool off, but it’s hard not to look ahead. While we don’t know how the remainder of the season will unfold, here are the early leaders — and a couple longshots — in the race for NL Comeback Player of the Year. Stay tuned for the AL.
Eric Thames, Milwaukee: 3/2
A few years away evidently served him well. After playing in Korea for the past handful of seasons, Eric Thames is having quite the start for the Brewers in his first year back in the bigs. He has an impressive 11 home runs, 20 RBIs, and a .326 batting average through 40 games. Not bad for a guy who left the majors in 2012. But not entirely unexpected, as he did win the KOB League MVP in 2015.
Thames is the epitome of perseverance, improving every facet of his game in Korea and returning a much more complete player. If he maintains his current level of production, this is his award to lose. But if he falls off, there’s a Ryan Zimmerman-shaped shark lurking in the waters.
Ryan Zimmerman, Washington: 3/2
Unlike Thames, Ryan Zimmerman didn’t actually spend last season out of the big leagues. But he might as well have. He had just 46 RBIs in 115 games while batting .218. To put that in perspective, he had 73 RBIs the year before … despite playing in 20 fewer games. His .642 OPS was over 1oo points lower than his previous worst. All signs pointed to Zim’s solid 11-year career coming to an end.
But Zimmerman had blinders on and missed those signs entirely. He’s having by far the best season of his career, batting a ludicrous .419 with 29 RBIs, an .871 SLG%, and 1.326 OPS, all of which lead the majors.
Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh: 15/1
Let’s be clear, McCutchen is not having a good season, batting just .237. But a big part of winning CPOY is opportunity, and he has that in spades. The centerfielder was also one of the biggest disappointments of 2016: after finishing top five in NL MVP voting for five straight seasons, he posted a thoroughly mediocre slashline of .256/.327/.419. McCutchen’s poor play was a big factor in the Pirates finishing under .500 for the first time in four years.
With the Pirates losing Starling Marte for 80 games to a PED suspension, “Cutch” will have to revert to his near-MVP form if the Pirates are going to be successful. Sitting a couple games below .500 and teetering on the brink of a complete rebuild, Pittsburgh desperately needs McCutchen to step up and show last year was just a blip on the radar.
Matt Harvey, N.Y. Mets: 15/1
It’s been a roller coaster career for Matt Harvey. He was a highly touted prospect when drafted back in 2010, but underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014. He won Comeback Player of the Year the following season, but then dealt with another season-ending surgery last year. (Against intuition, there is some precedent for repeat winners; Francisco Liriano won the CPOY in 2010 and again in 2013.)
This year, Harvey finds himself in the same situation as McCutchen: off to a slow start, but with ample opportunity to play the hero. With Noah Syndergaard and Yoenis Cespedes recently being put on the DL, Harvey will have the spotlight he needs to win his second award. If he can keep the Mets afloat in the NL East until they’re back to full strength, he’ll some love.
But he’ll need better results than we’ve seen so far. His strikeouts are down, his walks are up, and he has an inflated 5.14 ERA. He’ll also need Thames and Zimmerman to plummet back to Earth.
Photo credit: Keith Allison (flickr) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/]
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