I know, technically the season has started as the A’s and Mariners have played a two-game set in Japan to officially start the regular season. I wanted to wait as long as possible to see if Dallas Keuchel or Craig Kimbrel would sign before the regular season started. I want to clarify: I am NOT predicting teams’ specific records. I’m merely picking teams to finish in certain spots in their divisions, and I’ll pick the wild card teams as well. 2018 was a fun year, but only 3 teams made the 2018 playoffs that weren’t in the playoffs a year earlier, the lowest change in playoff teams since 2005. It’s not normally that easy to pick playoff teams simply by looking at who made it the past year, but it seems to make sense this year as well. The Red Sox, Indians, Dodgers, Yankees, Astros, and maybe a few other playoff teams from 2018 don’t seem like they’re going anywhere, but history tells us at least 4 or 5 teams who were in the field in 2018 will be watching from home this year, as last year was the first time since the MLB expanded to 10 playoff teams that more than 5 playoff teams held over the following year. The past doesn’t tell us the impact of JT Realmuto and Bryce Harper both joining the Phillies, in a division who’s champ from a year ago featured great young talent and added Josh Donaldson. The past doesn’t tell us what will happen in the NL central where every team except maybe the Pirates is trying to win right now, with the Cardinals adding Paul Goldschmidt, the Reds adding Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp, while the Cubs and Brewers just posted the best two records in the National League in 2018. So basically, yes the past matters and playoff trends matter but also throw everything out the window because it was another unusual offseason just like the winter of last year was. Anyway, here’s how I think this MLB season will turn out.
1. New York Yankees
The Yankees return much of the team that won 100 games a year ago, and we can expect Gary Sanchez to bounce back after struggling in 2018. The Yankees will also get Jacoby Ellsbury back at some point early in the season, giving them another weapon in their already crowded outfield. Didi Gregorius is out until likely at least July, but the additions of Troy Tulowitzki and DJ LeMahieu will help them shore up the infield. Increased production can also be expected from first base, either in the form of improvement from Greg Bird or, more likely, more playing time for Luke Voit. They return just about all the major factors on their pitching staff, but CC Sabathia and Luis Severino both will be recovering from injury in April. The sooner they get back the sooner the Yankees can take over the AL East. The Bronx Bombers look to end a World Series “drought” that would only be a drought for the 27-time champs to make their first trip to the fall classic since winning it all in 2009.
2. Boston Red Sox
Their worst spot on the field last year was their catchers, arguably the worst performance in the MLB at that position, and they did nothing to address it. Eduardo Nuñez also had some struggles in the regular season playing primarily second base, though he’ll best be remembered for his pinch-hit 3-run home run in the 7th inning of game one of the World Series that pretty much put the game away. Brock Holt is another option for the Sox at second base who also provides versatility in that he can also play corner outfield and third base, along with the return of Dustin Pedroia meaning Holt and Nuñez will see their playing time come from their versatility, not just at second base. Drew Pomeranz is gone, and the Red Sox hope they don’t have a starter that struggles like he did, as in 11 starts he had a 6.31 ERA, that didn’t get much better when he was relegated to the bullpen as he had a 5.56 ERA there before being released and signing with the Giants. The bullpen wasn’t great behind Craig Kimbrel in 2018, and losing him might flip 2 or 3 games from the win column to losses. That’s enough to slide the Yankees in front of them, but not enough that they miss the playoffs. The Red Sox get a wild card spot and head back to the playoffs to try to repeat as champs.
3. Toronto Blue Jays
I guess I’m joining the Vlad Jr. hype train. Plenty of concerns about the pitchers up north, but if the young starter Ryan Borucki takes a step forward and Stroman and Sanchez bounce back after disappointing 2018 campaigns, then the underrated signing of Clay Buchholz will complete a fine rotation. The offense will come from players like Justin Smoak, Kevin Pillar, Randal Grichuk, Kendrys Morales, and Guerrero and Bichette should get their call-ups at some point in the year. The injury to Devin Travis opens up a spot for Richard Ureña to try to prove himself before at least Guerrero gets called up, with Bo Bichette looking to crack the major leagues as well, this infield could get quite crowded. Additions like Bud Norris and John Axford should help a bullpen that will hopefully see Ken Giles return to a sub-3 ERA that he put up in 3 of his 4 major league seasons before struggling a bit in 2018. The Jays could end up below .500 if the pitching staff struggles, or they could challenge for the playoffs if their young talent excels.
4. Tampa Bay Rays
They have Blake Snell and openers for half of their other games, but I struggle to find where offense is going to come from in Tampa this year. They seem to trust that a lot of small-sample success is going to keep going in 2019 with players like Ji-Man Choi, Matt Duffy, and Yandy Diaz. Kevin Kiermaier is a gold-glove center fielder when healthy, but hasn’t topped 100 games the last two years and has played more than 110 just once in his career. Gone are CJ Cron’s 30 homers from 2018. I really don’t think Tommy Pham is going to have an OPS of over 1.000 for a full season, which he did down the stretch last year. I’d say it’s more likely that he plays similar to how he did with the Cardinals in the first half of last season, with a .730 OPS. For things to work in Tampa this year, they need Willy Adames to hold off any hint of a sophomore slump, Mike Zunino to return to 2017 form, not hit .200 like he has the rest of his career, those small-sample successes to see some large-scale returns, and Charlie Morton and Blake Snell to pitch great in their non-opener games. Snell is great, but a 1.89 ERA probably will head up to at least 2.50 this year, and Morton combined a career high in starts with a career low in ERA last year in Houston at age 34. It’s unlikely he puts up those numbers again. The Rays will probably end up close to .500 this year, somewhat disappointing for a team that just won 90 games.
5. Baltimore Orioles
This one doesn’t need much explanation. They return most of a pitching rotation that had a league-high 5.18 ERA in 2018, and the overall 47-115 roster doesn’t look much better than a year ago. There’s reason to believe many of their starters from a year ago should be better, as Andrew Cashner, Alex Cobb, and Dylan Bundy all had some of the worst years of their careers, while the other starters for Baltimore are either gone (Kevin Gausman had 21 starts before being traded to the Braves last year) or didn’t have significant experience before 2018 and may just be growing and developing as players. On offense… Well, Chris Davis can’t be any worse, right? Mark Trumbo was still good when healthy in 2018, and if Renato Nuñez and Joey Rickard can keep showing the improvements they showed in 2018 and Trey Mancini can get back to his rookie numbers and prove 2018 was just a sophomore slump, Baltimore might not finish with the worst record in the league. There were a few bright spots out of Baltimore’s bullpen, namely Richard Bleier, who has a career ERA of 1.97 in over 100 innings but is recovering from lat surgery that ended his 2018 season in June and may not be ready by opening day, and Paul Fry, who posted a 3.35 ERA in 2018 as a rookie from Waterford, Michigan (where he attended the same high school I did, though he’s several years older than me so we never met).
1. Cleveland Indians
Francisco Lindor got Indians management excited that he would be ready by opening day despite a calf strain suffered in February, and then went down with an acute ankle sprain just before opening day. The Indians still have an MVP candidate on the left side of their infield in José Ramírez, although he’s questionable for opening day with a knee strain, along with returning their star-studded starting rotation that was long rumored to possibly be losing one or two members, and instead may get a bit better mid-season with the return of Danny Salazar. Even trotting out one of the weakest outfield groups of any playoff contender won’t be enough to put the Indians below anyone else in the AL Central that has been one of the weakest divisions in baseball the last two years or so. The Indians also have a common problem of low production at catcher, but they’re hopeful Roberto Pérez can hit well enough to have some value with his plus defense behind the plate. Injuries to Lindor, Ramírez, and Jason Kipnis for the start of the season means they’ll need production out of Carlos Santana and late offseason acquisition Hanley Ramírez until they get back to fill out the star-studded infield. They may struggle in April, but provided injuries don’t linger, they’ll cruise to their 4th consecutive AL Central title.
2. Minnesota Twins
Joe Mauer retired, and the Twins likely will get an increase in production at first base because of it. Mauer wasn’t bad, but he hit more than 13 home runs just once in his career, 28 in his MVP campaign in 2009, and they added CJ Cron, who hit 30 homers last year. Brian Dozier was another Twin from the Ron Gardenhire era who’s gone after being dealt at the trade deadline last year, and if Jonathan Schoop can play more like the 2017 All-Star version of himself than the 2018 stretch run with the Brewers version, there might not be any drop-off there. The Twins signed super-utility player Marwin González this Winter, and he’ll be seeing a lot of third base action until Miguel Sanó returns from his Achilles injury, expected to be sometime in May. Until then, at least, the world gets to see more of the amazing show that is Willians Astudillo, the catcher/utility player, who had a thrilling debut in 2018. Nelson Cruz should continue to produce with his new club at DH, and the Twins remain hopeful that Byron Buxton can figure it out, and they need to get more out of Miguel Sanó than they did in 2017 when he’s back from injury. The pitching staff should be solid, especially if Michael Pineda can finally get more consistency coming off Tommy John surgery to add to the solid play of Gibson, Odorizzi, and Berríos. If the newcomers perform, I think Minnesota surprises a lot of people and snags a wild card spot.
3. Chicago White Sox
The Sox didn’t hit on the big free agents they were hoping for, but signing Jon Jay and trading for Yonder Alonso should help keep the White Sox away from the basement in the AL Central. They could have a pretty nice infield with developing young players in Yolmer Sánchez (26 until June 29), Tim Anderson (25 until June 23), and Yoan Moncada (turns 24 on May 27), with established veterans Alonso and José Abreu splitting first base and DH duty. As they’re adding #3 overall prospect Eloy Jimenez to their outfield for opening day, they’ll start to look like a team that is just a few pieces away from a playoff team that much faster. Those pieces most likely need to come in the form of starting pitching, as the only Sox pitcher with an ERA below 4.1 was 24-year-old Reynaldo López, who owned a 4.81 ERA in just under 100 career innings before 2018. Dylan Cease, another piece from the José Quintana deal, could also make his way to the south side of Chicago this year to help the rotation that’s biggest addition was Iván Nova, who at best offsets the loss of James Shields as a veteran for the young guys to learn from. The future is bright for the White Sox, but 2018 will not be the year they ascend.
4. Detroit Tigers
The Tigers still won’t field anything resembling a good MLB team in 2019, but they also aren’t throwing out random players who will look overwhelmed in the big leagues. Miguel Cabrera will hopefully be available for a full season, and while his perennial All-Star days and hitting 30 home runs in a season are behind him, he could still very well hit .300 or better with some doubles and walks to provide value. Their middle infield will look very familiar to Pirates fans, and if Mercer and/or Harrison play well they may even be able to bring back a prospect to Detroit after adding them for nothing but a bit of money. The outfield has a lot of interesting stories, between trying to get a good offer for Nick Castellanos, to JaCoby Jones trying to get his bat to a good enough level to be playable for his strong defense, to Christin Stewart trying to show why he was once considered an exciting prospect for his power hitting. The pitching staff is going to be less than it could have been with Michael Fulmer needing Tommy John surgery, and elsewhere they’ll have Matt Boyd hoping to continue moving his career in the right direction after a fairly successful 2018, Joe Jiménez trying to prove that his All-Star first half last year wasn’t a fluke, as he had an ERA of 2.60 on July 24th that swelled to 4.31 by the end of the year, and some battles for the last few spots in the rotation and bullpen. Tigers fans looking for Casey Mize, Matt Manning and others will likely have to wait for 2020.
5. Kansas City Royals
With Salvador Perez, I would have really had to think about putting the Royals ahead of the Tigers. When it was announced Fulmer would need Tommy John surgery, it became close again, but I stuck with the Tigers at 4. As it is, both teams are more likely to lose 100 games than win 75. If Danny Duffy can bring his ERA back to below 4 like it’s been most of his career, that will really help what’s bound to be a weak rotation unless Brad Keller builds on his great debut in 2018 and looks like an ace at age 23. Whit Merrifield will likely be their lone representative at the All-Star game unless Adalberto Mondesi really breaks out or Alex Gordon plays like he’s 27 again. One player-team fit I really like is the signing of Billy Hamilton, who’s still one of the fastest players in the game at age 28. Hamilton has the most stolen bases in the league since his debut in 2013 with 277, 25 more than Dee Gordon and 69 more than Jose Altuve in third. He could probably get a 60 stolen base season or two if his OBP were able to be consistently above .300, but a center fielder who flies around Kauffman Stadium will be a familiar sight for the Royals, and it’ll feel right. He and Merrifield alone might combine for over 100 stolen bases in 2019, something only 6 teams did in 2018, with the Royals being one of them. Currently, KC is a weak team with a weak farm system that’s going to have to endure a fair bit more losing before they can think about getting back into contention.
1. Houston Astros
If you haven’t heard about how good the Astros infield is, featuring an MVP winner in Jose Altuve, a Rookie of the Year winner from 2015 in Carlos Correa, and Alex Bregman, who finished 5th in AL MVP voting last year, then I don’t know how to fix that. Their starting rotation lost Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton, but should still be pretty good with Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Collin McHugh returning to the rotation after a year in the ‘pen, and top prospects Forrest Whitley and Josh James being just about Major League ready. Michael Brantley joins George Springer in an outfield that will have Tony Kemp and Jake Marisnick pushing for playing time behind Josh Reddick. Tyler White figures to get some time at DH along with some of those outfielders being told to just hit some days for an Astros team that should take home their third straight AL West title and try to get back to the World Series after Boston prevented them from going back-to-back last year.
2. Los Angeles Angels
It was really tough to pick between the Angels, a team with a great outfield, some positives and negatives in the infield, and some questions in the pitching staff, and the A’s, but I went with the team with the best player in the world on their roster. The pitching staff has more upside than that of the A’s, as Jaime Barria went from never being on a top 100 prospects list to a 3.41 ERA as a rookie last year, and Matt Harvey, while he’ll never be the same pitcher he was when he first came into the league, there’s reason to believe he could continue to improve (redevelop?) his game as he’s only 30. Their other starters are all solid mid-rotation types who’s ERA’s tend to be in the 3.9-4.2 range, and Cahill came from the A’s, helping the Angels to pass them. Jonathan Lucroy is also coming over from the A’s and hoping to get closer to the form he was at with the Brewers, as he’s struggled to produce near that rate in the past two years. Taylor Ward and David Fletcher should have increased roles in their age-25 seasons with Ian Kinsler and Luis Valbuena no longer with the organization, and Justin Bour helps as an additional option at first base or DH with Shohei Ohtani missing the start of the year and Albert Pujols possibly seeing a continued decrease in playing time after playing 117 games last year, the second lowest total in his 18-year career. The Angels will probably play about .500, maybe a little better, but fall short of the second Wild Card spot in the AL.
3. Oakland Athletics
Looking over a lot of the A’s roster I’m left with an impression of, “eh, fine.” Jurickson Profar might have a breakout season at age 26, but if not he’s a clear downgrade from the All-Star campaign Jed Lowrie just had. Marcus Semien is good in the field, not impressive at the plate. Mark Canha is a bad center fielder who can sometimes hit and might be more playable in the corner outfield if Ramón Laureano can hit in the ballpark of how he did in 48 games as a rookie last year with a .832 OPS. Stephen Piscotty’s nice, I’m less impressed with Nick Martini and Robbie Grossman, especially the defense of the latter. Khris Davis, Matt Olsen, and wherever they put Chad Pinder in the field will be fine, and of course Matt Chapman could come away with another Gold Glove and some MVP votes, but the pitching is a mess. Mike Fiers might be their best starter, and his ERA was over 5 in 2017. Marco Estrada’s ERA over the past two seasons is over 5. Brett Anderson is a complete wildcard, and the best thing about Daniel Mengden is his mustache. Seriously, here’s an article comparing it to the handlebar of Rollie Fingers. Blake Treinin is back for ninth innings but it’s unlikely he posts an ERA below 1 again, much more likely he heads back to the 2-2.5 range, which could net the A’s an extra loss or two. Some of the other nice relievers like Yusmeiro Petit, Ryan Buchter, and Lou Trivino are back along with some familiar names in Fernando Rodney and Joakim Soria. The problem with that is Rodney’s 42 and Soria is 35 and not the same pitcher he was 5-10 years ago. The A’s return with plenty of hope for 2019, but a repeat trip to the playoffs is unlikely.
4. Seattle Mariners
The Mariners picked a direction this offseason, after winning between 75 and 90 games for 5 seasons in a row. They’ll be out of the middle of the league this year, but unfortunately, they’ll be headed in the wrong direction for now as they try to develop young talent to help them end the MLB’s longest active playoff drought in a few seasons. 5 of the top 6 producers on last year’s team according to bWAR are gone, with Jean Segura shipped to Philly, Edwin Diaz and Robinson Cano heading to the Mets, James Paxton heading to the other side of New York with the Yankees, and Nelson Cruz released to free agency where he was picked up by the Twins. That leaves Mitch Haniger as the only player who provided more than 2.5 WAR from the team that just won 89 games. To be fair, they’ve added good players like Mallex Smith, Edwin Encarnación, Jay Bruce, and underrated acquisitions like Domingo Santana and Omar Narváez, to go along with signing the best player available from Japan in Yusei Kikuchi to help a pitching staff whose best starter might now be Marco Gonzales, who came into 2018 having made just 22 appearances, 14 starts, with a 5.47 ERA before posting a 4.00 in 29 starts last year. Justus Sheffield, acquired in the Paxton trade with the Yankees, should make his MLB debut at some point and could become another bright spot for this rotation. People have focused a lot on the losses, and for good reason as the Mariners will be worse in 2019 than in 2018. But they made some moves to help their current product on the field, and they won’t sink to an ugly level.
5. Texas Rangers
The Mariners sell-fest may allow the Rangers to get out of the basement in the AL West, but it might not quite be enough. The Rangers are total opposites of the A’s and Angels higher up in the division, with a decent pitching staff that will struggle to get run support. The issue for the Rangers is that of their projected starting pitchers, only Mike Minor had a full season in Texas last year. Lance Lynn spent 2018 between Minnesota and New York, Shelby Miller struggled heavily in 4 starts before getting hurt and needing Tommy John surgery, Edinson Vólquez spent all of 2018 sidelined from Tommy John’s, and Drew Smyly has pitched one inning of A ball since 2016 because of, you guessed it, Tommy John surgery. There is reason for hope, however, as Lynn, Miller, and Vólquez have all been All-Stars before in their careers. On offense, however, only Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Gallo were above 100 (league average) in OPS+ last year that are still on the team. Jurickson Profar was at 105, and he now plays in Oakland. Choo is 36 and was fading down the stretch last year after a hot first half that led to his first career All-Star appearance, and Gallo will probably hit about 40 home runs and might threaten the record for most strikeouts in a season. Gallo has 2 out of 5 seasons in which a player qualified for the batting title and hit more home runs than singles. Barry Bonds did it in 2001 when he hit 73 homers and 49 singles, and Mark McGwire did it in 1998 with 70 big flies against 61 singles, and again the next year with 65 round-trippers to 58 1-baggers. Gallo’s done it the past 2 seasons with 41-32 and 40-38. That’s 3 years in the top 5 of MVP voting and historic home run totals, and Joey Gallo being strange. The point is, the Rangers are still going to struggle offensively and finish a fair bit below .500.
1. Philadelphia Phillies
The Phillies had the biggest offseason in the MLB, with not only the Bryce Harper signing and JT Realmuto trade, but earlier the Jean Segura trade that also brought back two relief pitchers, the Andrew McCutchen signing, and signing David Robertson, a very consistent relief pitcher whose ERA hasn’t been over 3.5 since 2010. To win the loaded NL East, they’ll need a better season out of their starting pitching. Aaron Nola was great in 2018, finishing third in the Cy Young vote, and it can be expected that he’ll regress a bit. That means Jake Arrieta has to reverse his trend of a rising ERA since his Cy Young season in 2015, and at least one of their young starters has to take a step forward and get their ERA below 4. The hitting should be fine, adding Harper, McCutchen, Realmuto, and Segura to a lineup that already featured Rhys Hoskins, who gets to move back to his natural position of first base after being awful in left field the past two years, Maikel Franco, and already had solid outfielders in Odubel Herrera and Nick Williams, and it’s believed they may trade an outfielder early in the year, possibly to get starting pitching help. The bullpen should also be good with Robertson added to some great young relievers in Seranthony Dominguez and Víctor Arano, who deserve more attention than they’ve gotten with Acuña and Soto in the same division, as Dominguez just posted an ERA a touch below 3 with 16 saves as a rookie, and Arano followed up a great September debut in 2017 with a 2.73 ERA over his first full year in 2018. It’s hard to find a weakness beyond starting pitching, which they might be able to fix by moving the surplus in their outfield.
2. Washington Nationals
How does the team that lost Harper stay second in a division where the Phillies and Mets both improved so much this offseason? By making some great offseason moves of their own. They acquired 2 2018 All-Stars in Patrick Corbin and Yan Gomes and got Kurt Suzuki to go with Gomes behind the plate. An interesting note on Suzuki, before turning 30, he had a .685 OPS and averaged about 32 extra base hits a season. Since turning 30, his OPS has jumped to .729 while averaging around 31 extra base hits in about 50 fewer plate appearances per season than his younger years. Gomes figures to see a majority of playing time behind the plate, but that’s a pair of very capable catchers in the nation’s capital. Corbin, along with Aníbal Sánchez, adds to what was already a very good rotation in 2018 featuring not only 3-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, but also 3-time All-Star Stephen Strasburg, and Jeremy Hellickson will look to have another nice season after a bounce-back year in 2018. If Sánchez can prove that the home run-laden struggles from 2015-’17 are a thing of the past, this could be right up there with groups from Cleveland and Houston as some of the best in baseball. Anthony Rendon will keep trying to prove that he’s right there with Nolan Arenado and Kris Bryant in the argument for the best third baseman in the National League, with Manny Machado entering that discussion as well, as the Padres will be using him there, and adding Brian Dozier should give them one of the better infield groups in the majors with Trea Turner as an old school shortstop with speed and defense, and Ryan Zimmerman and Matt Adams splitting time at first base. The young talent in the outfield is obvious, and the bullpen should be good behind Sean Doolittle, Trevor Rosenthal, another offseason addition to the Nationals, and others. The Nationals nab a Wild Card spot and head to the playoffs.
3. Atlanta Braves
It seems crazy to pick a team that won their division last year and added a player as good as Josh Donaldson to finish third in their division, but I don’t trust the Braves pitching staff like I do the Phillies and Nationals. I can see a reason for the Braves to not do very well this season, and Mike Foltynewicz’s injury doesn’t help a rotation that should be good, but that’s relying on some young starters to perform, including rookie Touki Toussaint. The Braves could very well win the division or make the playoffs as a Wild-Card team, but I can see them struggling a bit easier than some of their division rivals. That said, if Julio Teheran has an All-Star season that he’s proven himself capable of and not an ERA north of 4, and Kevin Gausman proves his stretch in Atlanta after the deadline last year wasn’t a fluke, then a team with offensive weapons like Donaldson, Freddie Freeman, and Ronald Acuña Jr, along with secondary pieces like Nick Markakis, Ender Inciarte, and another good young player in Ozzie Albies will prove this projection wrong. This team still has a good future, as they have some pitching prospects on the way, but they likely won’t be making a big impact in 2019, so 2020 and beyond could look good for Atlanta even if Donaldson is just a one-year rental.
4. New York Mets
Someone has to end up fourth. Whoever ends up in this spot, whether it’s the Mets or one of the teams I have ahead of them, will be the best 4th place team in a division. This team could have had a better fate if injuries weren’t already limiting them before the regular season even begins. Yoenis Cespedes doesn’t yet have a timetable for his return from surgeries on both of his heels after injuries limited him to just 38 games in 2018. Todd Frazier has a strained oblique and will likely miss the first two weeks or so of the regular season. Jed Lowrie, fresh off his first All-Star appearance at age 34, has a capsule sprain in his left knee and will likely miss the start of the season as well, and without any Spring Training time, they may struggle when they get back to the lineup anyway. As great as Jacob deGrom is, he’s not going to repeat a season of 1.70 ERA, he’ll likely be back up in the 2.5 range at least. Robinson Canó is great, but he’s now 36. He’s definitely not getting better, and this team could still experience struggles offensively that won’t be able to provide a good pitching staff with enough run support to keep up with great teams in their division. Zach Wheeler and Steven Matz both have struggled in the recent past, as both of them performed poorly in 2017. So the pitching staff could see some regression towards the mean, and while the hitting is better, it’s still not a top-caliber lineup. Someone in the division is going to struggle, and I think the Mets are the most likely candidates.
5. Miami Marlins
Finally, an easy pick in this division. This team is kind of a ragtag thrown together bunch, with veterans like Neil Walker and Starlin Castro, and would you look at that they added Curtis Granderson this offseason because why not I guess, onto a lineup that also features 28-year-old Peter O’Brien, with 153 plate appearances to this point in his career, projected to start, an average at best 30-year-old in Miguel Rojas, a good young player in Brian Anderson, and Lewis Brinson, who they’re hoping turns the corner after being allowed to collect 406 plate appearances with a .577 OPS last year at age 24. League average OPS was .728 last year, and Brinson stole 2 bases last season, so it’s not like he’s got speed to help his value. Sandy Alcántara is the only starting pitcher with a big upside for them, while José Ureña has already shown he can be a productive, but not really great, starter, and Trevor Richards still has room for improvement as he’s only 25 (turning 26 mid-May). This team has a long way, and a lot of losing, to do before getting back into the playoff hunt. Until then, enjoy… Sergio Romo? I don’t know, there’s not much to look forward to here, they should have one of the worst records in the MLB yet again this season. At least their new logo is pretty cool.
1. Chicago Cubs
The Cubs got 95 wins last season while getting just 102 games from Kris Bryant, who wasn’t at full strength after his shoulder injury, and only got 8 starts from Yu Darvish while paying him $25 million for the season. More starts for Cole Hamels and Darvish, as opposed to Tyler Chatwood (5.30 ERA, 20 starts in 2018), should help the Cubs notch a few more wins in 2019. A return to health for Bryant and a bounce-back season for catcher Willson Contreras (.249 batting average, 10 HR in 2018; .276 with 21 HR in 2017) should keep the Cubs in good shape until Addison Russell gets back from his suspension. Russell will need to play better than he did in 2018 when he gets back, which it seems like a good bet that he should as he posted a career-low .657 OPS in 2018, and if he can get that back to the .700 range that’s normal for him his defensive value will shine that much more. Not having Brandon Morrow until May will hurt for their bullpen, but guys like Pedro Strop, Steve Cishek, and offseason addition Brad Brach should be able to carry the bullpen through until he gets back. After losing in the tiebreaker game to Milwaukee a year ago, no such tiebreaker is needed this time with the Cubs edging out the division win.
2. Milwaukee Brewers
Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich played at what are likely unrepeatable levels in 2018, so the Brewers should come down a few wins from 2018. But 25+ starts from Jimmy Nelson, who spent all of 2018 recovering from shoulder surgery after receiving Cy Young votes in 2017, should help offset that presumed loss. Yasmani Grandal and a full season from Mike Moustakas should help the offense have more top-to-bottom threats, especially as they’ll be largely replacing at-bats from Manny Piña (87 OPS+ in 2018), Erik Kratz (69), Hernán Pérez (80), and Jonathan Villar (85) who were all at least 10% worse than league average in OPS+, which adjusts for park factors to get an idea of how well a player hit in comparison to their peers. We’ll have to see if moving Moustakas to second base will affect their defense negatively, with other weak fielders on the team like Ryan Braun and Eric Thames, or if their good defenders (Cain, Orlando Arcia) are able to keep the team defense an overall positive. The Brewers expect to rotate pitchers between AAA and the MLB to keep them fresh, likely using roughly 7 starters throughout the year similar to 2018, but losing Corey Knebel to a UCL injury that they’re not sure whether or not he’ll need surgery on yet while 2018 All-Star Jeremy Jeffress is dealing with a shoulder issue and will likely miss the first week or two of the regular season is going to hurt their bullpen. There are reports that they’re signing Alex Wilson, who had a 3.20 ERA over the last 4 seasons combined with the Tigers, to help out until they’re back. The Brewers likely grab a Wild Card spot to get to the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time since 1981-’82.
3. St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals had a really good offseason, adding mainly Paul Goldschmidt and adding Andrew Miller to their bullpen, but many Cardinal fans were disappointed that the Cardinals didn’t make a stronger push for Machado or Harper. If this projection proves right and they’re unable to catch the Cubs or Brewers then their fans will be proven right in their frustration. However, it’s not too hard to see the Cardinals having a great season. If Marcell Ozuna and Dexter Fowler have seasons more like their 2017’s than their ’18 campaigns, that could lead to about 4 more wins (according to WAR) even if they don’t quite reach their full peak levels, and Paul DeJong was able to combine his 2017 offense with his 2018 defense, with Harrison Bader able to continue improving in his second season in the majors, the addition of Goldschmidt could top off a powerful offense. If their pitching staff, especially Miles Mikolas and 23-year-old Jack Flaherty, can prove 2018 was no fluke, then this club is dangerous. However, as Mikolas was in Japan from 2015-2017 because it wasn’t working out for him in the MLB before then, John Gant and Jack Flaherty had a combined 88 2/3 innings pitched in their careers before 2018, and Michael Wacha and Adam Wainright have struggled in recent years before Wacha bounced back in 2018, this pitching staff could regress back to a point that it holds them behind the Cubs and Brewers. With some wild cards in the bullpen like Mike Mayers, Brett Cecil, and Dominic Leone, this team could struggle enough to keep them out of the playoff race in a tough division.
4. Cincinnati Reds
The Reds will rival teams like the Padres and White Sox for the most improved team in 2019 as all three look to 2020 and beyond for their teams to really be picking up and making playoff pushes. The biggest move was the trade that brought Yasiel Puig, Alex Wood, and Matt Kemp to Cincy, with the only player who has played higher than the A level that they sent back was Homer Bailey, who the Dodgers promptly released. They also traded for Sonny Gray from the Yankees, and added Derek Dietrich and José Iglesias for added depth in their infield. Another underrated acquisition was the trade for Tanner Roark, which helped them fill out their starting rotation. Top prospect Nick Senzel has been attempting to shift to center field due to Eugenio Suárez’s development into an All-Star and contract extension, with Scooter Gennett also being an All-Star in 2018 at second base, meaning the two positions Senzel was comfortable with are taken by arguably the best two players on the team. News that Gennett has a strained groin should help Senzel lock up a spot in the majors for opening day, likely seeing time in center field and at second base until Gennett gets back. José Peraza is another developing young middle infielder that has shown good speed and added some power in 2018 with 14 home runs and 31 doubles after having just 18 total extra-base hits in over 500 plate appearances in 2017. The starting rotation, with Luis Castillo and Anthony DeSclafani expected to join Wood, Gray, and Roark, should be good as long as Yankee Stadium really was Gray’s issue. An interesting player to watch in Cincinnati is Michael Lorenzen, who owns an ERA around 3.5 as a relief pitcher over the past three years, but it’s his hitting that makes him unusual. It’s a small sample, but in his 92 career plate appearances, he owns a .776 OPS, and he hit 4 home runs in just 34 plate appearances last year when he was used as a pinch hitter 14 times and even played in right field in a game. It’s expected that the Reds will keep experimenting with Lorenzen as a two-way player in 2019.
5. Pittsburgh Pirates
Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison were the only two Pirates players who collected at least 200 plate appearances with a below league average OPS+ and they’re both gone, with David Freese being the only other one of the 11 players fitting that description in Pitt last year who’s gone, and Colin Moran was the only one of the 11 below 110 OPS+ and Jung Ho Kang is threatening his third base job. So why are they projected to finish last? Because any reasonable projection would have Francisco Cervelli and Elias Díaz, their catching tandem, both performing worse than their career-best 2018 seasons. It would have Gregory Polanco, who’s out until probably early May recovering from surgery, not hitting at a career-best level again. Erik González and Kevin Newman, who figure to get most of the playing time at shortstop, haven’t performed particularly well on either side of the ball to this point in their careers. An injury or two could limit their offensive production even further. On the pitching side, Trevor Williams was a relative unknown before posting a 3.11 ERA in 2018, and we can expect that to be at least a bit higher in 2019. Jordan Lyles is expected to get the #5 starter job despite a 5.28 ERA in his career with over 100 starts under his belt. The bullpen looks thin with names like Francisco Liriano, Tyler Lyons, Nick Burdi, and Nick Kingham all having a chance at getting time with the Pirates. I’d look for good veterans to be getting shipped out of Pittsburgh at the trading deadline to bolster a minor league system currently featuring Mitch Keller and Ke’Bryan Hayes, who should both be in the majors no later than 2020.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers had so much talent they decided to ship off a starting pitcher who had a 3.68 ERA in a team-high 27 starts in Alex Wood, along with Puig and Kemp in the outfield, for prospects that won’t be major league ready for a few years. That narrows down their starting rotation after having 7 starters with at least 15 starts in 2018, with all 6 other than Wood returning. What’s even more wild about that is that none of those 7 starters had an ERA above 4. The plan in LA should be to use all 6 of Kershaw, Buehler, Hill, Maeda, Ryu, and Stripling as starters again to keep them fresh for October, especially as Kershaw already has injury concerns again and Buehler took a light load in Spring training after his innings jumped in 2018. A healthy Kenley Jansen should be ready to lead a good bullpen behind that talented rotation after he had a scary abnormal heartbeat problem last year. They have David Freese as an insurance policy for Max Muncy in case he was a one-year-wonder and Freese can still get plenty of action against left-handed pitching. Corey Seager being back means the middle of their lineup should be scary with him, Justin Turner, Cody Bellinger, and newcomer AJ Pollock. If Pollock can stay healthy (a big if considering he’s played just 237 games over the past 3 years), it will allow the Dodgers to deploy both Kiké Hernández and Chris Taylor as super-utility players, as both of them figure to get some time at second base, and could spell just about anyone else on the field thanks to their versatility. This team is still loaded, and until the Padres get more of their unbelievable farm system to the majors, this division belongs to LA.
2. Colorado Rockies
We’ve already named two teams to the Wild Card spots, which means we’re projecting Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon, Trevor Story, Kyle Freeland, and the Rockies to be staying home for October. The Rockies, Cardinals, Mets, and Braves are probably all better than whoever gets the second Wild Card spot in the AL this year, but that’s the way it goes sometimes. I understand moving Ian Desmond to center field, they have a better option at shortstop in Story, but the idea of a 33-year-old trying to track down fly balls in the expensive Coors Field outfield doesn’t make me feel good. Moving to right field will help Blackmon’s defensive metrics, and David Dahl has done decently out there as he figures to be the Rockies’ starting left fielder, but overall I think their outfield will struggle yet again at handling their massive yard. Obviously, Arenado’s a superstar. Trevor Story could be elevated to that status if he keeps playing like he did in 2018. Blackmon is just two years removed from hitting .331 with 86 extra-base hits and a top-5 MVP finish. Offense will never be a problem in Colorado. The pitching staff features Kyle Freeland, who finished 4th in the NL in ERA+, which takes his already impressive 2.85 ERA and adjusts for the Coors Field park factor and left him behind just deGrom, Nola, and Scherzer, the same three pitchers who received more Cy Young votes than him. They also have German Márquez, who set a Rockies record with 230 strikeouts a year ago and hit .300 en route to a silver slugger award for NL pitchers. Tyler Anderson, Jon Gray, and Chad Bettis round out the rotation as more normal Rockies starters whose ERA looks bad until you remember they’re in Colorado. They lost one of their better relief pitchers this offseason in Adam Ottavino and a weaker bullpen and the fielding concerns are enough to keep them just out of the playoffs in a tough NL Wild Card race.
3. San Diego Padres
In 2020, we should be talking about the Padres making a playoff push. In 2021, if things are going right in San Diego, they should be World Series contenders. They’re not there yet, but they’re moving quickly in the right direction, with Luis Urías showing enough last September and this Spring to be an opening day starter at shortstop before moving over to second when Fernando Tatis Jr. gets to the big leagues to complete their infield of the future with Manny Machado at third and Eric Hosmer at first. Hosmer will need to do more at the plate in 2019 to help this team get ahead of the Diamondbacks and Giants after hitting just .253 (lowest since 2012) with 18 home runs (tied for lowest since 2014) for a .720 OPS after having a .781 OPS in his time in Kansas City. Another prospect from their farm system that’s currently ranked #1 by MLB Pipeline, Francisco Mejia, figures to get his shot in the majors behind the plate in 2019. They have an overloaded young outfield that may see a player or two traded for pitching in the next year or two. Among the pitching staff are Robbie Erlin, who owns the most major league starts of any current Padre with 37, and his spot in the rotation wasn’t guaranteed until Jacob Nix tore his UCL in his right elbow and will miss much, if not all, of 2019. Before that injury, Erlin was battling Matt Strahm, who pitched well in 2018 in 5 starts and 36 relief appearances but figures to be used primarily as a starter this year. Then there’s Joey Luchessi and Eric Lauer, who had ERAs of 4.08 and 4.34, respectively, in over 20 starts each as rookies in 2018. Completing the rotation will be Chris Paddack despite him having just 7 starts at AA and none at AAA in his career. There will be growing pains in 2019, but there’s a lot of young talent in San Diego and they’re coming.
4. Arizona Diamondbacks
A lot of people still have Arizona ahead of San Diego this year, but I like teams that are moving forward more than teams that are tearing down. With the departure of Paul Goldschmidt, Patrick Corbin, Clay Buchholz, and AJ Pollock, the D-backs aren’t going to be as good in 2019 as they were a year ago, and they were only 82-80. Teams that shed good players in the offseason are bigger threats to do so again at the trade deadline as well, which could lead to fading down the stretch. Some candidates to be traded include last year’s NL shortstop Gold Glove winner Nick Ahmed if he can continue to progress as a hitter at age 29 after putting up the best offensive season of his career in 2018, or 2017 All-Star Jake Lamb, who’s expected to play first base after being a third baseman to this point in his career but not being a great defender. Outfielders Steven Sousa Jr. and David Peralta could get traded as well, being middle-of-the-order corner outfielders, but that market is crowded right now from teams like San Diego, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia, who have crowded outfields, and individuals like Nick Castellanos in Detroit who are possibilities to get moved. The pitching staff won’t be bad with Zach Greinke and Robbie Ray headlining, but behind them, there are plenty of question marks. Zack Godley and Luke Weaver both had ERAs north of 4.7 a year ago, and Merrill Kelly is making a return to the US after having been in the Korean Baseball Organization since 2015. Kelly hopes to have a season like Miles Mikolas did in 2018 after coming back from a few years in Japan, but it’s hard to say how well he’ll actually perform. They signed Greg Holland to replace Brad Boxberger, who’s heading to Kansas City, at the back end of a bullpen that features everything from a former #7 overall pick in the draft (Archie Bradley), a Japanese player who came to the MLB last year at 34 (Yoshihisa Hirano), someone who has an infinite ERA in a season (Matt Koch, 2017), and a World Series winner with one of the weirdest last names in the sport (Marc Rzepczynski).
5. San Francisco Giants
The Giants and Pirates (or whoever finishes at the bottom of the NL Central and NL West) are going to be the best teams to be last in their division in the MLB. This team went 73-89 last year, and their biggest offseason addition was… Drew Pomeranz? Yangervis Solarte? They didn’t really add anyone who’s going to provide significant value, and this is a pretty old roster in a time when the league is getting younger. Their outfield will be getting younger, at the expense of having two fairly unproven players in Mac Williamson and Steven Duggar expected to start in the outfield. They’ll play alongside familiar foe Gerardo Parra, who’s played most of his career with the Diamondbacks and Rockies. It’s tough to say how good their outfield will be due to the lack of experience of Williamson and Duggar, but likely they won’t be great because they aren’t highly touted prospects, and players don’t tend to become great out of nowhere. Buster Posey now has 32-year-old catcher knees, and he’s coming off a season with his fewest games played since 2011 and the lowest OPS of his career. The youngest Giants players who had at least 200 at-bats last year, Austin Slater and Alen Hanson, are likely fighting for the last spot on the roster and will see less playing time. This team has talented but aging players and doesn’t have a lot of young talent on the horizon. On the pitching side, Madison Bumgarner is coming off back-to-back seasons of no more than 21 starts after having 31+ from 2011-’16, and there’s been a lot of talk about him being traded in 2019. They have Jeff Samardzija and Drew Pomeranz, both over 30 and coming off of disastrous 2018 seasons with ERAs over 6. Derek Holland and Dereck Rodríguez are intriguing, Holland had his best season in 2018 in his first year in the NL and Rodríguez posting great numbers as a rookie, but this team doesn’t have enough talent to compete for the playoffs, and the players who are doing good will be talked about as trade candidates until the new hard deadline on July 31st passes.
So there you have it. I started by talking about expecting a lot of new playoff teams in 2019, then only picked 3 to actually do it. Maybe someone will surprise us. Overall, just like 2018, the National League has more good teams than the American League, but at least 3, maybe 4 teams in the AL (depending on if you think the Indians can win it all) can win the World Series. But the NL only has one team that we know is going to be really bad (sorry Marlins), while the AL has several (Orioles, Royals, Tigers, Rangers, probably White Sox and Mariners). Think about the major changes from the start of last year to now: Manny Machado went from the Orioles (to the Dodgers) to the Padres, Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel are leaving two of the top teams in the AL (who knows if they’ll ever sign though), the biggest offseason trades saw players going to NL teams, like Canó and Diaz going to the Mets, JT Realmuto staying in the NL but going to a stronger team in the Phillies, etc. The big moves are still happening in the National League, where there’s a less clear top 3-4 teams and instead there are 8-10 good teams that could make the playoffs. The AL will have a battle for seeds and the second Wild Card spot at least. A season prediction wouldn’t feel complete without a championship prediction, so I’ll conclude with a recap of who I had in the playoffs, and make a World Series pick.
Wild Card: Red Sox and Twins
Wild Card: Nationals and Brewers
Astros over Nationals, 4 games to 2