Archive for April, 2017

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The Fate Of The Furious (2017)

April 28, 2017

Starring: Vin Diesel, The Rock, Jason Statham, Charlize Theron
Director: F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Comptom, Law Abiding Citizen)

Bottom Line: Full disclosure: I’ve never made watching the Furious movies a priority (this is the first one I’ve seen in theaters since maybe the second one, possibly the first one) so I never got around to watching the seventh installment before seeing this movie. It only feels moderately necessary – and my skimming of the franchise’s Wikipedia page made me feel primed enough to take on The Fate Of The Furious without feeling like I’d be too lost.

I never would have thought when the original film debuted in 2001 that it would go on to become one of the most successful action franchises of all-time, spawning seven sequels – most of which are pretty fun – and a Universal Studios tram ride. But here we are, in 2017, watching the 8th installment of a series that has continually surprised and has arguably been picking up gradual steam since it rebooted in 2009.

Well, while The Fate Of The Furious is going to disappoint few die hard fans and, at this point, it seems ridiculous to be overly critical of how preposterous all of it is, this is the first clear step backwards since the Tokyo Drift spinoff/sequel. For me, it all starts with Charlize Theron’s Cipher, a techno-terrorist that lures Dom (Diesel) aboard her nefarious mission by showing him something on her phone and pits him against his scattered team of driving/thieving wizards. So, in a sense, we get to see Dom be the villain for the first time in a while, which is kind of cool, but it also creates a weird dynamic where the audience is supposed to buy that his team – wife included – actually question his intentions. Cipher is a computer hacker genius, with access to every camera and vehicle computer in the city, but Dom is somehow able to orchestrate a perfectly timed sidestep in order to meet up with the mother of the Shaw brothers (villains of the last two movies) and set in motion his plan to overcome his current situation. Yes, totally unbelievable and it seems like an easy target for criticism but at some point you have to realize when you are simply watching lazy writing.

Theron isn’t given much to work with here and she totally phones in her performance. She’s completely over-qualified and doesn’t bother to raise the bar. Jason Statham and The Rock, however, are perfectly suited for this kind of movie – they can crack jokes and kick ass with the best of them. Since I skipped the seventh movie, I never saw Statham playing the bad guy in it, but he’s definitely a welcome addition here and clearly one of the film’s highlights.

The Fate Of The Furious wasn’t bad and I found myself entertained watching it, but it did start to feel a bit tired and everything happens a little too perfectly – at one point, my friend turned to me and made a comment about how little concern one of the characters was showing in a specific moment and I replied: “no one is ever concerned about ANYTHING.” And that’s what the Furious franchise has come to. Yes, the spectacle can be fun to watch, but at this point, no one is fooled into thinking anything is ever actually at stake.

Replay Value: Not sure I’ve seen one of these movies more than once.
Sequel Potential: Believe it or not, Vin Diesel is already attached to parts 9 and 10.
Oscar Potential: None.

Grade: 5/10 (watchable)

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Manchester By The Sea (2016)

April 25, 2017

Starring: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams
Director: Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count On Me)

Bottom Line: This is going to be a difficult movie to review because my watching experience was abnormal to say the least. We had my parents over for dinner and when offering a lineup of potential movies to watch, my mom insisted we watch Manchester By The Sea because it was a lauded movie that she had already seen and hated. My wife asked if we had to finish the movie about 40 minutes in and it was pretty clear my dad was also not into it, so watching a critically acclaimed, snail-paced character drama in the middle of the day when 75% of the audience was distracted was a rather difficult task.

But I liked Manchester By The Sea and no amount of moaning on the sidelines was going to stop me from finishing it once I started. And to be fair to my mom, she said she liked it this time; and it’s reasonable to conclude that any movie you can watch a second time through you probably didn’t really hate the first time around either.

But I can understand why someone would be turned off by Manchester By The Sea. It’s incredibly bleak. And although there are number of surprisingly funny moments, it’s a sad movie that revolves around the tragic curveballs life can throw you and how, sometimes, those moments can be too overwhelming to move on from. The whole film focuses on Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler floating through life like a zombie for reasons that unfold as his story is revealed through flashbacks. It’s no surprise that Affleck won an Oscar for his role in this movie as he is truly wonderful, perfectly portraying a grieving man with emotions so boxed in that they are liable to unload with fury at any moment.

The supporting cast of Manchester By The Sea is also wonderful. Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges both earned Oscar nominations for their supporting roles. While Hedges plays more of a central character and his acting prowess is constantly on display alongside Affleck, Williams got award attention for a much smaller role, but there’s an incredibly powerful scene in the third act where you can see the exact moment she earned the all the accolades.

Manchester By The Sea is a very technically sound film, with solid writing, beautiful cinematography shot near a Massachusetts shoreline, and Grade A acting all around. It’s a story about tragedy and how we grieve – and don’t always heal – and it isn’t necessarily meant to be uplifting, but sometimes that is how life is. If you are able to get past the bleak subject matter and don’t mind a slow-paced film that’s entirely focused on the characters, then there’s a pretty good film here. I wasn’t blown away by Manchester By The Sea and it won’t rank in my top 10 films of 2016, but it’s worth watching, especially for Casey Affleck’s fantastic performance.

Replay Value: Not a movie you’d want to watch multiple times, but I’d revisit it some years down the road.
Sequel Potential: None.
Oscar Potential: Six nominations: Best Picture and Best Director for Kenneth Lonergan; Best Supporting Actor for Lucas Hedges and Michelle Williams; and Oscar wins for Casey Affleck for Best Actor and Kenneth Lonergan for Best Original Screenplay.

Grade: 6/10 (recommended)

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The Notorious B.I.G.

April 20, 2017

I’m going to start a new section on my blog that profiles notable hip-hop artists and grades them in all the important categories in an attempt to a) break down their resumes, b) highlight their strengths and weaknesses, and c) figure out where they stand on the all-time list. Initially I was going to make a post that counted down my top ten rappers of all-time, but I think this route is more realistic and encompassing – I can highlight one emcee at a time and probably try to make one post every two weeks or so, plus I can post about rappers that aren’t necessarily candidates for my Top 10. This will be different from my fluid 2016 Rapper Rankings, which is a breakdown of the current hip-hop scene only.

I decided to start with The Notorious B.I.G. because I could digest his entire catalog in a short time and he’s largely considered one of the best rappers to ever do it. Since this is my first post of this nature, I will explain each category I am using to evaluate hip-hop artists before grading Biggie in that particular element.

Legacy: How much of an impact did the artist have on hip-hop? What kind of imprint have they left on rap music? Where do they land among the all-time greats? Will they be remembered 20 years from now? Biggie obviously checks all the boxes here. Christopher Wallace died on March 9th, 1997 and released two studio albums during his career, both of which are largely considered hip-hop classics. Even though his peak was cut tragically short, Biggie is almost universally considered an all-time great and has been revered and referenced throughout hip-hop for the past 20+ years. A+

Consistency: Simply, how consistent was this emcee throughout their career? Did they continually put out high quality albums or were there some bumps along the road? In Biggie’s case, he died young, early in his career (he was 24!), and we’ll never know if he was already peaking or if he would have enjoyed the long career some his notable peers (Nas, Jay-Z) have. Unfortunately, B.I.G. only released two albums, but they are both fantastic and he never disappointed. A+

Longevity: How long have they been making music? How long was their peak? How long have they been relevant? As previously noted, Biggie died young, so we’ll never know what he could have done, but from 1994 to 1997 he was unquestionably one of the premiere emcees in the game. R.I.P.

Lyrics: How strong was their pen game? We are talking about BARS only here. This category encompasses storytelling, cohesion, similes, metaphors, punchlines, cleverness, humor, bragging, battling, belittling, rhyme schemes, etc. Basically, how well could they write? Biggie wasn’t the most complex lyricist; in fact his writing style was actually pretty simple. However, his storytelling ability is legendary and he grades strong in the humor, bragging, and cleverness departments. B+

Songwriting: Not to be confused with lyrical ability, songwriting is something different… something that makes a hip-hop artist more of a complete package. I’m talking about their ability to craft good songs. Just because you can write good verses, doesn’t mean you can make good songs… or albums. This category includes which beats they decide to rap to; how well they write and execute hooks, choruses, and bridges; can they make catchy tunes? There is definitely a lyrical element to songwriting, but making good music is the focus here. Biggie was obviously a master songwriter – to this day, “Big Poppa,” “Juicy,” and “Hypnotize” are some of the most memorable hip-hop songs ever created. Even some of his lesser songs like “Nasty Boy” and “Playa Hater” are enjoyable because of B.I.G.’s ability to make catchy music. Biggie was able to switch gears as well as any rapper ever has been, fully capable of making completely grimy hip-hop and radio-friendly megahits. A+

Rapping: This category refers to spitting only. How well can this rapper rap? How well do they ride the beat? Do they switch up their cadence? Approach various production differently? Biggie Smalls was born to rap. He sounds at home over basically any beat you ever heard him on, making it all sound completely effortless and natural. While I don’t think Biggie was an elite lyricist, his rapping and songwriter abilities more than made up for it, as he made everything sound amazing. A

Voice: To me, this is one of the least important categories when it comes to rap, as anyone that actually makes it in hip-hop usually at least has a capable voice. However, it is worth mentioning as not all voices are created equal. Biggie’s voice is instantly recognizable and perfectly suited for his style. I wouldn’t say his voice is exceptional, but it didn’t need to be. B+

Replay Value: What kind of listening experience does the artist offer? Can you listen to their music repeatedly? Does it hold up 5 years later? 20 years later? I still listen to Biggie’s catalog regularly and it holds up incredibly well – it is truly timeless. A+

Features: How well did the artist do as a guest appearance on someone else’s song? Were they highly sought after? Are they frequently the highlight of someone else’s song? Unfortunately, Biggie’s short career means that his list of guest appearances is also relatively small. Still, whenever featured on a song, Biggie was unquestionably the highlight of the track, demolishing guest verses on Puff Daddy’s “Victory” and “Young G’s,” and Da Brat’s “Da B Side,” and his back-and-forth with Jay-Z on “Brooklyn’s Finest” brings a tear to the eye when you think about what The Commission might have been. B.I.G. also had a number of solid R&B features. B

Discography:

Ready To Die (1994) – One of my all-time favorites – a no-brainer, timeless classic. “Big Poppa,” “Juicy,” and “Everyday Struggle” are some of my favorite rap songs ever created. This is a completely realized record with no weak points, numerous classic songs, and Biggie sounds like a fully mature hip-hop artist at the ripe age of 22 on his debut album. Truly remarkable.
10/10 (Classic)

Life After Death (1997) – There’s a classic album in here somewhere. At 24 tracks, I think there are some notable weak points like “Nasty Boy,” “Playa Hater,” etc., but even Biggie’s filler is somewhat enjoyable. Life After Death is like a super-sized version of Ready To Die, once again weaving effortlessly between grimy street tales and radio-friendly hits. I feel like B.I.G. really stepped up his storytelling skills on this album and his flow on “Hypnotize” is nothing short of amazing.
9.5/10 (Potential Classic/Classic)

Born Again (1997) – Full disclosure: I only listened to the first ten songs when I revisited this album. I just can’t get into it. Biggie’s biggest strengths were his songwriting and rapping abilities and when you take random verses and try to paste it over a random beat to create a song he never intended to make, well, those particular strengths go absent and you get a subpar and forced product like Born Again. Of the 10 tracks I listened to, only “Dead Wrong,” which featured a fantastic verse from Eminem, was truly memorable. Since B.I.G. wasn’t involved with this project, I won’t hold it against him and I won’t rate it either.

Duets – The Final Chapter (2005) – Jesus. When they start titling your posthumous albums like a horror movie franchise, you know your name is being tarnished. I seriously listened to Eminem’s crappy verse on the first song and just turned this off. This was released 8 years after Biggie’s death and is littered with guest appearances and has absolutely no impact on his place in hip-hop history.

Classic Albums: 1.75
Current Status: Deceased, March 9th, 1997
All-Time Status: Top 7

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Kong: Skull Island (2017)

April 12, 2017

Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, John C. Reilly
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Bottom Line: Set in the 1970s, just after the Vietnam War, Kong: Skull Island is the story of a bunch of people you will soon forget about exploring an uncharted island filled with giant and monstrous creatures, including the infamous King Kong. I actually liked how the movie didn’t waste time with a slow reveal of Kong because, let’s be honest, if you are flying above Skull Island you are not going to miss the 100 foot ape roaming around. Almost as soon as the team of “geological researchers” and their military escort reach the shores of Skull Island they are doing battle with the massive gorilla.

Of course, the film also wastes little time with any real character development, which is somewhat of a shame, because there are a number of overqualified actors in this movie. Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson continue to impress me, but they are given very little to work with and one has to wonder why they even bothered. Oh yeah, because of their million dollar salaries! Most people probably aren’t going to King Kong movies for the interesting characters, but a big part of why I loved Peter Jackson’s underrated 2005 version is because of how well he developed the relationship between Kong and Ann Darrow – the film really made me feel something. There is a brief nod to Kong feeling compassion to Brie Larson’s character, but it’s almost laughable how Kong is able to discern between those that are actually trying to harm him and those that understand that he’s only protecting himself because he feels threatened. And then there’s Samuel L. Jackson’s character, the leader of the military outfit, hellbent on making sure everyone gets killed. Because that’s what real people would want to do when there are lethal, giant monsters around – attack them on foot with handheld firearms. And everyone just follows him around with little resistance.

Not only is the 2005 version of King Kong a much better story, it also looks better. Somehow, with 12 years of technological advances, the CGI in this movie is less impressive than Peter Jackson’s version. The highlight of Skull Island is probably the other creatures on the island. There’s a giant spider that is creepy enough that it actually made me shiver at the thought of it and Kong has a fun battle with a giant octopus.

I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to mention that this film takes place in the same cinematic universe as 2014’s Godzilla and there are plans to have this King Kong (which is why he’s 100 feet tall) and the 2014 version of Godzilla – and others – face off in the future. But so far, they are 0-2 with these movies and none of the actors that would likely appear have signed on for future sequels.

Overall, it’s hard to say I was too disappointed with Skull Island because I really wasn’t expecting much, but it does kind of boggle my mind how the film is sitting at 77% on Rotten Tomatoes because there is not much to like. I guess it was entertaining enough, but aside from a couple of fun action sequences, there is very little to remember about Kong: Skull Island.

Replay Value: I will never watch this again.
Sequel Potential: The second entry of a planned MonsterVerse that will feature Godzilla, King Kong, Mothra, Rodan, and others. Godzilla: King of the Monsters has cast and crew attached and is set for release in March 2019 while Godzilla vs. Kong is still in pitch status but has a planned release date of May 2020.
Oscar Potential: I think it will whiff even in the technical categories.

Grade: 4.5/10 (Watchable/Forgettable)

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IT by Stephen King: the 1986 novel and the 1990 miniseries

April 8, 2017

In anticipation of the upcoming film adaption of Stephen King’s classic horror novel It, I decided to revisit both the book and the 1990 made-for-TV miniseries.

WARNING!! While I usually avoid SPOILERS in all my blog posts, I am going to discuss It freely since the novel was published over 30 years ago.

I read the novel in my early teens, which was one of my greatest reading accomplishments as a kid since the book clocks in at over 1100 pages – quite a task for a young teenager. My recall of the book was pretty limited – I remembered a werewolf, a spider, the house on Nieboldt Street, Stuttering Bill, and that the book was way scarier than the miniseries, which I had already seen prior to reading It for the first time. I also remember thinking that It was my favorite book for a very long time – probably up until I majored in English in college and read a number of expertly written pieces of fiction and my overall range of literature tastes drastically increased.

Amazingly, what I did not remember was that Beverly Marsh, the lone girl in the Loser’s Club, has sex with all the boys, one after the other, thinking that doing so will somehow enable them to escape the sewers below Derry, Maine. This happens when they are in elementary school. How a teenager reading this book forgets a scene like that, I have no idea. How does Stephen King even write a scene like that? How does his publisher let him?

Revisiting the novel as an adult was much like the experience the Loser’s Club have when they grow up and move away from Derry: they all forget the terrible things that happened to them when they were kids. Aside from the few things I mentioned above, reading this book again was like reading it for the first time. The characters all felt familiar as I was introduced to them, as did a number of sequences, but a lot of it I didn’t remember at all.

I guess I should summarize the plot for those that might not know. It is the story of a group of kids that come together to square off against an ancient evil that frequently takes the form of Pennywise the clown, but can shape shift into whatever it is Its target fears the most, all while systematically picking off the children (and sometimes the adults) of Derry, Maine. This is something that happens every 27 years or so in Derry, so after an epic battle with It in the summer of 1958, the Loser’s Club, as they call themselves, all vow to return if It ever comes back to Derry. And It does, in 1985, when the kids have all grown up and become exceptionally successful adults, aside from Mike Hanlon, who stayed behind in Derry to keep watch. So they all come back to face off with their childhood monster and vanquish It once and for all.

While I adored this novel as a kid, I really liked it as an adult, but some of the flaws are way more apparent. Stephen King’s work is often criticized for not trimming the fat off his stories and that’s evident while reading It. King will frequently introduce a character, dive into a long and deep backstory, and then immediately kill that character off, all in the same chapter. While the backstories can sometimes be fun and do help develop a feel for the characters, one has to wonder if including said character is even necessary at all when King’s only plans for these people are to die. It’s like watching a bad horror movie where all these random people are picked off by our favorite masked killer, but having to watch a half hour of exposition before each murder scene.

Also, Mike Hanlon does a lot of investigating into the history of It in Derry and while this stuff is interesting and does pertain to the main story (that, historically, It haunts Derry every 27 years), a mention of why he’s looking into things and what he discovers would have sufficed just fine, but instead King dedicates what feels like at least a hundred pages to both the actual investigating sequences and to tragic events that happened in Derry in the distant past. I listened to It on Audible and I frequently tuned out for lengthy periods of time during these sequences. I just didn’t care.

I also found most of the story that occurs when the Loser’s Club are adults to be kind of grating. While the kids are incredibly likable and their story is enthralling and feels authentic, things feel way more forced for the adult group. While loudmouth Richie Tozier comes across as endearingly annoying as a kid, carrying over that exact same persona to an adult version is just plain obnoxious. With the exception of Ben Hanscom, who sheds all his excess weight and seems to have confidence as an adult, it seems like the rest of The Loser’s Club experience almost no maturity or emotional growth in the 27 years since they left Derry. Likewise, the encounters with It as kids are way more scary and fun than the ones they have as adults, although Beverly Marsh’s first adult confrontation is pretty chilling.

Finally, I am not a fan of King’s handling of where It came from. I’m talking about The Turtle and all that weird stuff that happens at the end of the book. What has been a taut, terrifying tale about a monster that terrorizes kids in a small town suddenly zooms way out and becomes a story about multiple planes of existent and ancient overlords (Gods?). Say what? If King gave no explanation of what It is or where It came from, I think the novel would still be plenty enjoyable. Probably better.

Still, It is plenty fun and these problems don’t ruin the book, they just make it clear that it isn’t quite the masterpiece I made it out to be when I was thirteen years old. It’s easy for me to point out all the things that kind of rubbed me the wrong way, but I still think It is one of the best horror stories I’ve ever read and ranks up there with The Stand as my favorite King book.

Before I move on to the miniseries, I feel I should note that Steven Weber (from the early 90’s television show “Wings”) does an AMAZING job reading this book. I was blown away really, particularly with how he handled Stuttering Bill – it’s a great performance and it really enhanced my listening experience.

Okay, so the 1990 miniseries. I hated it. I still hate it. It’s TERRIBLE. I’ve seen it three times now: before I ever read the book and immediately after reading it as a teenager and listening to it as an adult. The first time I saw it, I didn’t realize how bad it sucked, but I did after reading the book and I still do now.

Tim Curry has earned a heap of praise for his portrayal of Pennywise, and while I enjoy his work here just fine, it reminds me of Jack Nicholson as The Joker in the 1989 version of Batman: it’s a bit over-the-top and grossly overrated. When I read or hear people say that no one will be able to Pennywise justice after Curry’s portrayal, I can’t help but smirk. Of course they can. It’s not difficult to imagine a capable actor doing a better job. Curry gives a very mischievous, somewhat hokey performance that isn’t particularly scary and I think Pennywise is supposed to be way more terrifying. I think a lot of people are simply afraid of clowns and that phobia makes Curry’s Pennywise seem scarier than It actually is.

Still, Curry was pretty good casting for Pennywise and gives what is probably the best and clearly the most memorable performance of the miniseries. Everyone else is far more questionable. While John Ritter, Seth Green and Annette O’Toole have had respectable careers and don’t embarrass themselves here, the rest of the cast is filled with mostly unknowns and none of them elevated their careers with their acting in this miniseries. Almost universally, everyone is giving a cheesy performance and thus, it’s hard to take anything that happens on screen too seriously and it definitely lowers the scare factor substantially. Jonathon Brandis looks good as Stuttering Bill, but the poor kid’s ability to produce a natural-sounding stutter is nonexistent. Young Ben Hanscom actually does a good job, but he’s far more trim and confident than he’s supposed to be. I couldn’t stand the adult version of Bill Denbrough and his ridiculous ponytail. I could go on, but there is very little to like about the look of the characters or the acting in this adaptation and it really took away from my enjoyment.

Also, it’s weird that a miniseries that runs at almost three hours can feel so rushed. While the writers and editors were wise to trim off a lot of King’s fat, there is very little weight to the story. It just jumps from one scene to the next with basically no development. The ongoing feud with Henry Bowers feels like more of an afterthought than the epic battle it is in the novel. Henry isn’t all that imposing. He looks and acts more like a posturing greaser than a kid that actually becomes capable of murder. And when he returns as an adult, it’s even worse – all I could think of was Martin Short as Jack Frost. Get out of here with that.

Most of the encounters with Pennywise are brief and not scary. The miniseries fails to highlight how personal the battle between the kids and the monster is. It’s young Bill Denbrough and his group of ragtag friends against the evil spirit that haunts Derry, Maine. In the miniseries, it’s a bunch of random kids played by average actors against Tim Curry in clown makeup. And, to me, that’s the gist of why the miniseries was an incredible fail – it just feels so unbearably empty and the overall cheese factor only makes it worse.

Because I really enjoyed the book and absolutely loathed the miniseries, It has long been at the top of my list of properties in desperate need of a remake – ever since that trend has become rampant in Hollywood. With modern technology and evidence that breaking a single story into multiple movies is a viable business plan, it’s pretty clear someone can finally do Stephen King’s epic novel justice – and if the first trailer is any indication it looks like they have.

As far as I know, the film being released this September focuses on the kids and their battle with Pennywise, taking place in the 1980s – and you know what, that should be the only movie they make. As I’ve noted above, the story doesn’t work nearly as well when they are all grown up and I can only imagine a second movie dedicated to the adults will pale in comparison. I imagine the filmmakers are going to leave the weird children’s sex scene on the cutting room floor and I HOPE they don’t include the turtle and all that multiple planes of existence stuff. The trailer looks great: the tone looks serious, scary, haunting… the kids look well cast… I have high hopes for Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise. There’s nothing funny or “clownish” about that trailer…

…and because of that… It (2017) is my most anticipated movie of the year!

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2017 MLB Predictions and Wagers

April 2, 2017

Welcome to the 2017 Major League Baseball season! The Rays have already vanquished the Yankees, but it’s not too late for me to write about what I think/hope is going to unfold this season, so here are my 2017 predictions:

AL EAST

1. Boston Red Sox
2. Toronto Blue Jays
3. New York Yankees
4. Baltimore Orioles
5. Tampa Bay Rays

Thoughts: Losing David Price for an indefinite amount of time hurts, but it’s still hard to imagine anyone but the Red Sox winning this division. There aren’t many teams that don’t envy Boston’s loaded lineup and the addition of Chris Sale to the rotation is monumental.

The Blue Jays have a solid, if unspectacular rotation and while the lineup will miss Edwin Encarnacion, Kendrys Morales isn’t a bad replacement. They have holes at 1B and LF, but the Jays should compete for a Wild Card spot.

The Yankees are an interesting team. They unloaded at the All-Star break last year and still managed to stay in the playoff race until the last week or so, all while arguably establishing the best farm system in baseball. They should have some growing pains this year, but they should also hover around .500. This team could be scary good in a couple years, especially if/when they sign Bryce Harper or Manny Machado (or both! GASP!) after the 2018 season.

The Orioles will probably make the Wild Card game because I’m wrong about them Every. Single. Year. Their lineup is solid and their bullpen is absurdly good, but Ubaldo Jimenez is currently listed as their #3 starter. UBALDO JIMENEZ.

The Rays have a formidable rotation if everyone stays healthy and pitches to their potential, but that’s been a challenge of theirs in recent years. With the exception of Evan Longoria and Kevin Kiermaier, the lineup features a group of players that would be battling for roster spots on a lot of other MLB teams.

AL CENTRAL

1. Cleveland Indians
2. Detroit Tigers
3. Kansas City Royals
4. Minnesota Twins
5. Chicago White Sox

Thoughts: The Indians rival the Cubs for the easiest route to the playoffs. Cleveland made it all the way to extra innings of Game 7 of the World Series last year, despite missing multiple significant pieces for lengthy periods of time. All the starters are presumably healthy, plus The Tribe adds Edwin Encarnacion and a full year of Michael Brantley to the roster, and Andrew Miller and Cody Allen really shorten the game from the bullpen.

The Tigers are good enough to take second in this division, but I do not think they will be part of the Wild Card race in September. The lineup still has a solid, aging core, but the Tigers have little depth and look like they will be trotting out Jacoby Jones and Tyler Collins in their Opening Day lineup. The rotation is pretty questionable outside of Justin Verlander/Michael Fulmer and the bullpen remains a problem.

The Royals annual championship runs appear to be over. Danny Duffy emerged as an ace last year, but the tragic death of Yordano Ventura has left K.C. with a rotation of guys that will need to overachieve to keep this team relevant.

The Twins are still in transition: they have a number of good, young position players that are still developing at the major league level, but the rotation isn’t going to keep them competitive. Brian Dozier wants to be a lifelong Twin, but the organization is probably better off trading him for future building blocks.

The White Sox are all in on a rebuild, so they are going to be bad this year and it’s going to get even worse when they trade Jose Quintana and David Robertson, with Jose Abreu and Todd Frazier also possibly on the market. On the plus side, the White Sox crushed the offseason and the future looks bright.

AL WEST

1. Houston Astros
2. Seattle Mariners
3. Texas Rangers
4. Los Angeles Angels
5. Oakland Athletics

Thoughts: It pains me to predict the Astros as winners of the AL West, but the recent injury to the Seattle’s Drew Smyly has me concerned. Houston’s lineup is absolutely loaded – they are going to score a ton of runs. Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa are both serious threats for AL MVP. The rotation doesn’t look particularly scary, especially if ace Dallas Keuchel’s 2015 Cy Young run was an anomaly. I really like Joe Musgrove and Lance McCullers has filthy stuff, but can’t seem to stay healthy.

I love the Mariners lineup – they added Jean Segura to compliment an absolutely nasty middle of the lineup. Jarrod Dyson, Mitch Haniger, and Danny Valencia are interesting additions that could make Seattle’s offense one of the best in baseball. The Mariner rotation is filled with question marks. Can Felix Hernandez return to ace status? Can James Paxton stay healthy and live up to the immense expectations? Can Seattle overcome the injury to Smyly with Ariel Miranda and Yovani Gallardo starting 40% of their games for the first six weeks of the season?

The Rangers should make the AL West an interesting three team race for most of the season. They have a pretty loaded lineup but their success largely depends on how far Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels can take them. The rotation is really lacking behind those two and Darvish is no sure bet to survive a full campaign.

The Angels are arguably improved over the 2016 version, but Mike Trout can’t carry this team to the playoffs himself. The Halos are starting Ricky Nolasco on Opening Day, so, yeah…

The A’s are similar to the Rays in that they have some upside in their rotation (but way less experience) and a lot of their everyday players would be bench players on most MLB squads.

AL MVP: Carlos Correa, Houston Astros
AL CY YOUNG: Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox
AL ROY: Andrew Benintendi, Boston Red Sox

AL Wild Card Game: Mariners over Blue Jays
AL Division Series: Indians over Mariners; Red Sox over Astros
ALCS: Indians over Red Sox

NL EAST

1. Washington Nationals
2. New York Mets
3. Philadelphia Phillies
4. Atlanta Braves
5. Miami Marlins

Thoughts: If the Mets can keep their rotation healthy for the majority of the season, they can win this division. If they can’t, the Nats remain the team to beat and a return to MVP form from Bryce Harper and a full season of Trea Turner could be pretty imposing.

The Phillies might have the most underrated rotation in baseball, plus they have some young players that are producing at the MLB level. They won’t compete for a playoff spot, but they are getting closer.

The Braves are in a similar position, but maybe a year or two further away from contention. They cobbled together a rotation that should be decent enough to keep them out of the cellar of this division.

The Marlins have a great young outfield, but their rotation is borderline laughable – I’m not even sure if they have a legit #3 starter. It’s hard to imagine them not losing a ton of games.

NL CENTRAL

1. Chicago Cubs
2. Saint Louis Cardinals
3. Pittsburgh Pirates
4. Milwaukee Brewers
5. Cincinnati Reds

Thoughts: The Cubs still have the most complete roster in the game and should be the envy of every team in baseball – and they are going to be really good for a long time. I fully expect them to run away with the division again.

The Cardinals should be good enough to take second in this division, but I think they are a starter or two away from being a playoff threat.

You have to wonder what’s going on with Andrew McCutchen, but the Pirates could have an elite outfield and a solid young core of starters in Gerrit Cole, Tyler Glasnow, and Jameson Taillon. Pittsburgh’s infield features no established stars though and the pitching staff is mostly unproven.

The Brewers are rebuilding and while they have some interesting players at the MLB level, they will not be contending in 2017.

The Reds are terrible and have no hope on the horizon either.

NL WEST

1. San Francisco Giants
2. Los Angeles Dodgers
3. Arizona Diamondbacks
4. Colorado Rockies
5. San Diego Padres

Thoughts: I think I’m in the minority on thinking that the Dodgers are a bit overrated. Clayton Kershaw might finish as the greatest starting pitcher of all-time, but I think the rotation behind him and Kenta Maeda is full of injury risks and question marks.

The Giants, meanwhile, have two legit aces (and one serious power threat!) in Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto. Matt Moore is only 27 and is still capable of taking a big step forward and I think a lot of teams would be happy with Jeff Samardzija as their #4. The SF bullpen is shaky, but Mark Melancon should be a positive and the rest of the Giants roster is riddled with guys that play good baseball. It’s no coincidence this franchise has three titles since 2010.

The Diamondbacks and Rockies are both really interesting teams that could be a lot better than people are expecting. The D’Backs were a popular sleeper last year after acquiring Zack Greinke, but he bombed and then they lost superstar A.J. Pollock early in the year. I see a lot of potential across this roster – although Fernando Rodney in the closer position is frightening – and I wouldn’t be surprised if Arizona made a playoff push. The Rockies are in a similar position but they have already been crushed by injuries/ailments to a number of impact players. Even with the losses of David Dahl, Ian Desmond, and Tom Murphy, the Rockies lineup looks loaded and the rotation is as good as the Rockies have ever had.

The Padres should be the worst team in baseball. With the exception of Wil Myers, the rest of the roster is basically a AAA team.

NL MVP: Byrce Harper, Washington Nationals
NL CY YOUNG: Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
NL ROY: Manuel Margot, San Diego Padres

NL Wild Card Game: Dodgers over Mets
NLDS: Cubs over Dodgers; Nationals over Giants
NLCS: Cubs over Nationals

World Series: Indians over Cubs

Finally, here is a list of all the wagers I currently have on the MLB season. I’m no pro, so I don’t recommend tailing any of these plays, but I like them enough:

Padres u66.5
Rockies o79.5
White Sox u69.5
Mariners o85.5
Marlins u76.5
Reds u69.5

MLB stolen base leader o62.5

Rockies -1.5 wins over Twins
Mariners -17.5 wins over Padres
Chris Sale -0.5 wins over Madison Bumgarner

Diamondbacks 80-1 to win World Series
Diamondbacks 100-1 to win World Series
Mariners 18-1 to win World Series
Rockies 35-1 to win World Series

Carlos Correa 12-1 to win MVP

HAPPY OPENING DAY!