Some* of these 2018 predictions will be right
Every year I do these stupid predictions, and it normally goes one of two ways. Some years, I spend this introduction proclaiming how smart I am and how these predictions are so good that I’ll end up spoiling the season for you. Some years, I lean into the other direction and make fun of my quixotic silliness, loudly announcing that I’m going to get most of the predictions wrong.
In this iteration, I would like to proclaim that some of these predictions will be wrong and some of them will be right.
Take last year, for example. My World Series winner was the Houston Astros, I correctly picked five out of the six division winners, and I picked the Brewers to finish ahead of the Cardinals, which absolutely nobody else did.
I also picked the Yankees for fourth place, Tyler Glasnow to win Rookie of the Year, and the Mariners to reach the ALCS.
The important thing, as always, is to email me when you disagree, like the guy who emailed me in May with a subject line of “Coughcough how ‘bout them Orioles?” and text that read “Mr ‘they’re going to be in last place’ ??” Do that because these predictions are VERY important and serious. Please be him.
Did I learn anything from last year’s predictions? I did. I would like to share these lessons with you.
The Mariners are the failson of baseball, and they will always disappoint you.
For the second straight season, I had the Mariners advancing deep into the postseason. For the 93rd straight season, give or take, they did not do that. They will always disappoint you. They are Jason Robards’ drifter son in Parenthood, the one who means well and is always trying to do the right thing, but will sell your 1935 Ford Model 48 while you’re asleep.
Do not trust the Mariners.
The Yankees will never, ever be bad again, and we’re going to have to accept this.
Never ever ever. While we’re laughing about Sxqll Jeter screwing up the Dubai Dongers in 2093, the Yankees will be winning 94 games with droids they found behind the aerodrome.
Always pick a random team to do good things, and never feel guilty about it.
Dunno, I was drunk on fermented Eric Thames last March, so I picked the Brewers to finish in third place. That was behind the Pirates, who got stuck in an elevator shaft, sure, but still. It’s a lot more fun to point at the home run swings than the boring singles through the right side. Like anyone cares that I picked the Nationals to win the NL East.
The Mariners are the failson of baseball, and they will always disappoint you
Just wanted to reiterate that point. It’s easily the most important one of these predictions.
And now, onto the predictions!
Chances of the fourth-place team winning the division: It’s certainly possible to construct a scenario in which the Rays are better than expected. It’s harder to do it while predicting the simultaneous collapse of the Yankees and Red Sox.
Chances of the fifth-place team winning the division: When I looked through the Baseball Prospectus 2018 annual to research the Orioles’ starting pitcher depth chart after the front five, only one pitcher had a full capsule and writeup. That writeup included the words “unquestionably a reliever.” It’s better now with Alex Cobb, but sheeesh.
New York Yankees
Last year was the equivalent of us loudly mocking the volcano god and the dumb people who believed in it, only to have tectonic plates shift and magma shoot out of the earth. I’m sorry, Mr. Volcano God. It won’t happen again, Mr. Volcano God. Can I get you a cocktail, Mr. Volcano God?
The Yankees didn’t just make a surprising return to the postseason, but they wholly reinvented themselves and weaponized their young players at the same time. They peeled the foil from players like Jacoby Ellsbury and Alex Rodriguez — the latter was literally on the team about 500 days ago — and replaced them with one of the most enviable young cores in baseball. With Aaron Judge and Luis Severino, they had the second- and third-place finishers in the MVP and Cy Young, respectively, and both of them are in their 20s. Along the way, they scooped up a young, team-controlled starter in Sonny Gray, and he’ll help for 2018 and beyond. Then they added the NL MVP, also in his 20s.
As long as we’re making predictions, I might as well point out that the Yankees have just four players under guaranteed contracts next year and a whole mess of pre-arb and arb-eligible young players. They’ll probably win next year, too.
And right after typing that period, the Yankees signed Neil Walker, who committed the unforgivable sin of being a very solid, productive player for the last eight years and had to wait until March to sign a new deal.
This team is going to score 900 runs.
Boston Red Sox
Really they’re 1a., but there’s nothing more weaselly than predicting a tie in a division, unless it’s worse to spend the first sentence equivocating about how you’d really like to predict a tie. Either way, yes, the Red Sox will be good, too, and they will almost certainly make the postseason. Stand down.
In a way, the Red Sox and their plans are a happier version of the Giants. What if the players who were much better in 2016 ... were much better again? With the Red Sox, this question is mostly being asked about young players like Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts, so not only are these players starting from a baseline of excellent-just-not-super-excellent, but they’re young enough to where improvements would be more expected than surprising. Oh, and they signed J.D. Martinez, which is like 85 percent of a Giancarlo Stanton at a third of the cost.
If there are questions, they’re coming in the rotation, with David Price returning from an injury-marred season and Drew Pomeranz suffering from the dreaded “forearm tightness” early in the spring. Rick Porcello and the rabbit ball are mortal enemies, and Brian Johnson will walk the razor’s edge this year, either leaving fans spellbound or making them scream, “This house is on fire!”
They’ll be good, though. They’ll make the postseason, and they might win the World Series. You can’t write that about 20 of these teams, give or take.
Toronto Blue Jays
What the Blue Jays have going for them:
- Josh Donaldson
- The wondrous wizardry of Kevin Pillar’s enchanted glove
- Baseball’s most underrated and sneaky-competent rotation, perhaps
Why they won’t win the division:
- A lineup with four or five hitters who could finish with an OBP lower than .320
- That’s not including Justin Smoak, of course
- Because are we just pretending that it’s normal that he’s awesome now?
- It’s not normal
- And if he’s not hitting like last year, hoooo boy, is this lineup rough
- The kind of rough that causes a team to finish last in the AL in runs scored, which the Blue Jays did last year
- With All-Star Justin Smoak
It’s easy to like the rotation, from Marcus Stroman to the flier they took on Jamie Garcia. It’s just impossible to look at a lineup featuring Smoak and a 35-year-old catcher in the middle and think, yeah, no concerns here. They’re closer to fifth place than first.
Tampa Bay Rays
When the Rays revealed their plans for a four-man rotation, it was easy to hedge and think it would last just as long as it took for one of their two best pitching prospects to reach the majors. Both of those pitchers broke, though, and suddenly a rotation with outstanding promise has become a wet paper bag filled with heavy groceries.
This is before you get to the part where the bullpen isn’t exactly overstuffed with the kind of durable, reliable strikeout machines that could support the extra workload of this experiment.
And that’s before you get to the part where the team finished second-to-last in the AL in runs scored.
Which is before you get to the part where they’ve actively subtracted from that lineup in the offseason.
The front office is still smart, of course, and they’ll probably whip up some lifehacks that help them finish closer to .500 than 100 losses. The rotation still has Chris Archer and three other pitchers I’d be thrilled to watch at their best. But think of them like the Mariners with a maxed-out credit card — a reliable disappointment underneath all of that competence — and you’ll probably be right more than wrong.
Here is the saddest sentence that anybody could write about the 2017 Orioles: Wade Miley and Ubaldo Jimenez combined for 300 innings and a 5.67 ERA.
It’s crushing because, yes, the ERA is dreadful, but please look at how many innings they were forced to pitch. Just going out there, week after week, failing in front of thousands of people wondering why they decided to attend an Orioles game on purpose instead of staying home, renting a movie, and saving an awful lot of money.
Those specific pitchers are gone, but it’s hard to get rid of an infestation like that with just one round of spraying. Andrew Cashner is here, but his shiny ERA almost certainly stayed in Texas, and he was the most obvious Orioles move possible. It’s possible that he didn’t even sign a contract and that he just arrived in Sarasota because of an unseen force that no one can explain.
Alex Cobb was a late addition — late enough to scuttle all of the hilarious content that was previously in this paragraph — and he’ll definitely help the Orioles from devolving into self-parody. If you squint, you see a way they can hit 250 homers and have just enough not-Ubaldos in the rotation to make them relevant this season.
It would take just about everything breaking right, though. That hasn’t been a plan that’s worked out for the Orioles recently.
Chances of the fourth-place team winning the division: Nah.
Chances of the fifth-place team winning the division: Nope.
This is, quite possibly, the easiest pick in baseball, but I must warn you that there are potential pitfalls. The Indians weren’t the only team in Cleveland that was busy being cavalier, ha ha, as their entire offseason can be summed up by those two magic words that should never be used to sum up anyone’s entire offseason: “Yonder Alonso.” The two monsters at the top of the rotation are enviable, but both of them are over 30. Danny Salazar is suffering from shoulder inflammation, and that’s entirely predictable. Trevor Bauer is forever enigmatic, and this all puts a lot of pressure on Mike Clevinger and Josh Tomlin to be a surprisingly effective 40 percent of a rotation.
Focusing on what might go wrong is a great way to miss what should go right, and that involves Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco in the first two slots of the starting five, with two of baseball’s most electric, personable talents in the infield. If Francisco Lindor hits .367 this year with 30 homers and 30 stolen bases, it shouldn’t surprise anyone, and for all of the Indians’ injury concerns, there is a fair amount of depth at every position.
But it’s hard not to stare at the Brantley-Alonso-Chisenhall-Perez-Zimmer bottom of the order, then glance at the rotation, and wonder why the Indians weren’t willing to pounce on their wide-open window this offseason. They could be fine. But there’s a non-zero chance of them wallowing in regret when the postseason arrives.
They finally signed Lance Lynn, which means this won’t be a spot where I ruthlessly mock them for not taking advantage of a soft division and a static division winner. It will, however, be a spot where I point out that they’re still counting on Kyle Gibson, and that Jake Odorizzi will be only as good as the juiced baseball lets him be. This is still an underwhelming rotation, at best.
But somewhere along the way, the Twins became a franchise that’s exceptional at finding and/or creating hitters who outperform modest projections. While their present-and-future core of Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton came with all sorts of prospect fanfare, the real engine of the 2018 Twins will run on the players who weren’t always supposed to be major contributors, like Brian Dozier, Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler, and Jorge Polanco (who was just suspended for performance-enhancing drugs, by the way). If they could do something like that with pitchers, they would be a model franchise.
As is, the Twins have probably had to Eternal Sunshine Jose Berrios to convince him that he was originally a Yankees prospect, and it’s hard to see another Berrios coming in the near future. Stephen Gonsalves might be useful immediately, but for the most part, this Twins team will rise and fall with the fortunes of Lynn, Odorizzi, and Ervin Santana.
Which, when you type it all out, sure doesn’t seem that risky. Those are all fine pitchers with some measure of upside. Considering who’s in front of them and who’s behind them, though, it sure would have been a lot cooler if they had one of those combustible, pyrotechnical marvels of an offseason that ended with Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, and J.D. Martinez. As is, they’re probably a little better in a division where they needed to be a lot better if they wanted to win it.
Chicago White Sox
It’s not like there’s any glory or honor to be found by predicting the last three-fifths of the AL Central. There are only bonus points. And, sure, I might not have “heard of” some of the players in their projected lineup, and, yeah, maybe their starter on Opening Day might have been “objectively terrible last year,” and, fine, the White Sox might be “projected to win 31 games this season,” but, uh, hold on, lemme start over.
They’re in third place for one reason: I’m willing to believe in their farm system filling in some of the gaps this year. It doesn’t have to be Yoan Moncada or Lucas Giolito becoming All-Stars, and it doesn’t have to be Eloy Jimenez or Michael Kopech riding a meteor into the majors. It’s all of it, the sheer number of raffle tickets they’re collecting. There should be at least a couple of young players who will make the White Sox look better at the end of September than they do right now.
Which is the point of having a good farm system, I suppose.
Kansas City Royals
I’m happy for the Royals and their fans that they’re getting Mike Moustakas back. It’s not like there was a perfect way to start a rebuild without him, so they might as well try to be respectable with him and keep a familiar, powerful face in the lineup. And there’s been a good-faith effort to put reasonable major leaguers around him. Jon Jay and Lucas Duda are perfect fits for a team that’s not ready to alienate their fans completely just yet, and it’s not like the lineup is embarrassing.
On the other hand, it’s entirely possible, if not likely, that Jay leads the Royals with a .330 OBP this year. It’s possible that the second-lowest ERA in the rotation will be somewhere in the mid-fours in an optimistic scenario. Unlike a lot of the teams near the bottom of their division projections, at least the Royals have the warm, snuggly blanket of the past to warm them, and that will last for at least another season.
After that? No idea. The downhill tumble from the best farm system to possibly the worst was a wild one — just a humdinger of a thrill ride that worked exactly like it was supposed to — but if you apply some regression to the mean for Whit Merrifield and Moustakas, you’re looking at a fantastically boring team. It’s one thing to be bad, but it’s another to be Paulo-Orlando-hitting-third boring in the middle of August, and that’s a distinct possibility.
Here it is, year one of the official rebuild. The Tigers will not be good. Everyone involved with the team has made peace with that.
It will be fascinating to see the Tigers vs. the Royals this year. I mean, not in an actual game, ha ha, goodness, I’m not going to watch an actual Tigers/Royals game. Thank you, OSHA. But it will be interesting to see how the two strategies compare in terms of acceptability and execution. The Royals are the limbless knight from Monty Python & the Holy Grail, unwilling to give up, even though it sure doesn’t look good. The Tigers have accepted their fate, and they’re mostly willing to lose 100 games if it gets them the first-overall pick again, though this looks more like a 90 or 95-loss team from here.
Which fan base will be less disgruntled? Do complete rebuilds lead to more gruntled fans? And why don’t we use the word “gruntled” more often? It’s a great word. Gruntled.
My guess is that Tigers fans won’t exactly be gruntled, but there’s some peace that comes with a firm, unambiguous direction. Miguel Cabrera is still owed $184 million through 2023, but it’s not like that’s preventing the Tigers from adding that final piece of the roster right now. This is a year of experimentation and youth, of hoping that the veterans in the rotation can eat enough innings to keep the bullpen from dissolving into a sulphurous fog by June.
Considering just how long the Tigers have been plugging their fingers in the very expensive dam, it has to be at least a little refreshing to let the torrent wash over them.
Chances of the fourth-place team winning the division: The Mariners have the longest postseason drought out of any North American sports team. The only chance they have is if the powers of my reverse jinxing are stronger than their unchecked Marinersitis. I’m not optimistic.
Chances of the fifth-place team winning the division: The Rangers would probably be the best last-place team in baseball, which means they’re just a couple good breaks from second place, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario outside of U.N. intervention where they finish ahead of the Astros.
Last year’s champeens are even stronger this year. They’ll have Justin Verlander all season (although considering his recent first-half history, that doesn’t have to be a good thing), and they’ll have Gerrit Cole. Carlos Correa is young enough to improve, which is terrifying, and there’s depth at nearly every position. The stat-based projections at FanGraphs are giving the Astros a 101-61 record, which is six wins better than any other team, and they have a real chance to score 900 runs or more.
So, yes, the Astros are going to win the AL West again, and it probably won’t be very dramatic. However, this isn’t a spot for uncritical praise. It’s my job to point out warts, and warts I will point out. And as someone who watched every single postseason game they played in last year, my question is this: What about the bullpen?
Last October, you could practically hear A.J. Hinch sobbing with regret during every trip to the mound. Instead of motioning to his left or right hand as he walked out, he would simply become a human shrug emoticon. By the end of the World Series, I was half expecting him to not stop at the mound and continue walking, through the open center field gate, out of the ballpark, and straight down the middle of the highway, cars honking and swerving to avoid him, until he reached the ocean, any ocean, and slowly walked underneath the waves, where there are no relievers.
Which is all to say: What about the bullpen?
The only problem with predictions of late-inning doom are that last year’s bullpen shouldn’t have been that bad. They were just gassed. So hopefully with some better health from Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers, everything will trickle down and allow Ken Giles and Chris Devenski to be the stalwarts they were supposed to be.
The bullpen didn’t prevent the Astros from winning the World Series last year, after all. It shouldn’t be what prevents them this year.
This is my Intentionally Irrational Pick™ for the year, and I’m doing it because there’s going to be some team that pulls a Brewers and contends unexpectedly, if not a team like the Twins that actually makes the postseason. Not to mention, it’s absolutely no fun to make predictions if you’re not going to juggle a few katanas. I’m not entirely sure that the A’s are better than the Rangers, much less the Angels, but at least give me a chance to explain.
The lineup isn’t loaded in that Astros sort of way, where pitchers are terrified of every single hitter in all nine slots, but it’s still a lineup without a place to rest. There’s power up and down, from the leadoff spot to whomever they find for ninth, and almost all of these guys are capable of keeping their OBPs near league average, at least.
The defense should be much improved with a full season of Matt Chapman and Khris Davis leaving his glove at home. The A’s signing Jonathan Lucroy might be my favorite non-Stanton move of the offseason, because he fits the team’s needs perfectly as a defender and a hitter.
The rotation is iffy because of its relative youth and limited track record, and there’s no way to get around that. Trevor Cahill has a higher ceiling than a lot of the cheaper options signing in March, and that will help. But I’ll guess that A.J. Puk is up sooner rather than later, and for all their warts, everyone in the rotation has been an effective pitcher in the majors at some point.
It’s possible that I’m overrating the A’s in almost every way, but my guess is that they’re still in the hunt at the trade deadline and make a dramatic, bold deal that backfires almost immediately. Hey, it beats languishing in fifth place, which is where most predictions will have them.
Los Angeles Angels
How sketchy is the Angels’ rotation? According to this, their No. 2 starter is going to be a non-roster invitee, which boggles the mind. How can a team that has the built-in head start of Mike Trout let their rotation slide to the point that an NRI gets the No. 2 spot? My stars, what a mess. Now let me just google this “Shohei Ohtani” and see why he’s earned so much trust, and ...
Oh. Oh, my.
Okay, this team might be good after all.
So much of this team depends on individual players holding on to their gains from last year. Is Andrelton Simmons really Ozzie Smith 2.0 now? Is Zack Cozart really entering Brandon Crawford’s prime at the same age that Crawford is leaving? Is Justin Upton really fixed and reliable for the next couple years now? The answer to all of those questions could be “yes,” but they’re still honest questions.
Mostly, it’s the rotation depth that scares me, though. While I’m willing to be optimistic about Garrett Richards, Andrew Heaney, Tyler Skaggs, and Matt Shoemaker all staying productive and healthy — they’re talented pitchers, all — it’s hard to be optimistic that the Angels will find enough pitchers for a four-man rotation by June, much less a six-man rotation.
Still, the Angels had concerns heading into the offseason, and they addressed them. New second baseman? Check. New third baseman? Check. A top-of-the-rotation monster who can also DH, while somehow making the minimum salary because of inscrutable rules? Check, even though that shouldn’t exist. It was a fantastic offseason for them.
And considering just how lost the entire franchise seemed as recently as a year ago, it’s impressive to see just how relevant the Angels have become in such quick order. They have the best player in the game. They have the best prospect in the game. They’re the most compellingly watchable team outside of the Stanton Judge Show, and they should be a barrel of rally monkeys this season.
It’s a shame that they had to be in the division with the Astros and the Intentionally Irrational Pick™, though.
I work with a Mariners fan who is responsible for helping with the formatting and design of this preview, so let me start this capsule with a personal message for him: The Mariners did not sign Shohei Ohtani, and they will never, ever fill your heart with happiness. Not that you deserve it.
Anywho, with that out of the way, let’s talk about the Mariners. While writing these predictions, I rely a lot on RosterResource.com, which helps me with projected lineups, rotations, and bullpens. When you get to the Mariners’ page, you get little medical crosses and numbers over 30 in the middle of their lineup. The crosses indicate that the players — Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz — are dealing with injuries. The numbers in red are their respective ages. Again, that’s the No. 3 hitter and the cleanup hitter behind him.
Maybe it will work out, you might say, pointing out different 35-year-olds who have succeeded in the past, before realizing that you’re talking about the Mariners, who are cursed for a reason that we can’t possibly understand.
Am I bitter because they’ve made me look dumb for two straight seasons? Possibly. Prove me wrong, Mariners. Prove me wrong.
But if the health of the lineup is concerning, it’s the rotation that is especially worthy of skepticism. There was a point last year where nearly the entire rotation was on the disabled list, and while James Paxton blossomed into the ace he was supposed to be years ago, he hasn’t exactly been a horse for the Mariners over the years. After him are a bunch of guys, some of them with a higher ceiling than Mike Leake — except for Mike Leake, whose ceiling is exactly Mike Leake — and it could all work out if they stay healthy.
“If they stay healthy” and “the Mariners” in the same sentence is basically like dividing by zero, though. As a card-carrying member of End Droughts Now, I’m all for the Mariners figuring this all out and rampaging through the postseason, if only to have a different look in October. Because I’ve watched baseball in the past decade, though, I’m going to have to go with “nah” as my official prediction.
If these predictions confirm anything, it’s that the AL West is pretty strong. For as much as I love to needle the Mariners, they have a 25-man roster that’s worth watching. So, too, do the Rangers, who can offer up Cole Hamels every fifth day and Joey Gallo every day and still have enough youth to make the team feel confident that they’ll remain watchable in both the short and long term.
Are they good, though? If they can get two league-average arms out of Matt Moore, Doug Fister, Mike Minor, and Martin Perez, it will be something of a coup. Heck, if they can get full seasons out of three of them, productive or not, I’ll be impressed. There is a little depth in the minors (Yohander Menendez) and on the team (Jesse Chavez), but nothing that should make the Rangers think they’re just a few lucky breaks away from competing with the Astros.
The lineup could be even more concerning, as they might have the most unstable collection of 20-homer-capable players in baseball history. Rougned Odor finished with a worse OPS+ and a similar OPS to Billy Hamilton, despite hitting 30 homers. Shin-soo Choo finally played a full season and hit relatively well, but he’s 35 and eternally fragile. Adrian Beltre is a minor deity, but he’ll be 39. Robinson Chirinos was almost the team’s best hitter last year, but 34-year-old catchers coming off career seasons don’t inspire that much confidence.
Or, to put it another way, there have been three teams in baseball history with three players who hit 20 homers or more and finished with a below-average OPS+. The Rangers were one of them. They have lineup questions. They have rotation questions. And even though Tim Lincecum is going to throw 75 innings with a 1.57 ERA, they have bullpen questions, too. They might be contenders, but a whole lot of dominoes would have to fall in exactly the right way.
Also, Rougned Odor just swung at one of the dominoes.
Chances of the fourth-place team winning the division: Not great, friend. Not great.
Chances of the fifth-place team winning the division: It would almost be funny. Almost.
This might be the last time they’re an easy pick to win the division.
Not to be alarmist, here, but consider everything that’s lurking in the shadows for them. Bryce Harper’s impeding free agency. The dark pull of entropy sneaking behind Max Scherzer and Daniel Murphy, as it does for all athletes. The obligatory questions about Stephen Strasburg’s durability. I’m not saying that they’re doomed, just that next year it might not be such a quick and brainless pick in the NL East.
This year, though? Ha ha, quick and brainless. Spent .00004 seconds on this pick. They’re an excellent collection of baseball players, with depth and power and speed and athleticism and arms and arms and arms. With a little health and development, it’s not hard to see Adam Eaton, Trea Turner, Bryce Harper, and Anthony Rendon being the best top of the lineup in baseball. There’s some stiff competition from the Astros and Yankees (off the top of my head), but that we can even have the discussion is a testament to how talented the Nationals’ lineup is.
As for the rotation, they can go five deep with pitchers who belong in a major league rotation, with the two at the top always a threat to win the Cy Young. Scherzer has probably overtaken Clayton Kershaw as the best pitcher alive, which isn’t exactly easy. And while it’s fair to be skeptical of Tanner Roark and A.J. Cole, there’s at least a sprinkling of minor-league depth to help out behind them if they falter.
The Nationals probably won’t win 100 games. But they’ll almost certainly win 90, and in the NL East, that might be enough to win the division by 10 games.
They’re a trendy dark horse now that they’ve signed Jake Arrieta, which is a shame. It’s a shame because they were already my dark horse before signing him. Won’t anybody think of the poor pundit who wants to make counterintuitive picks for attention?
They’re an easy dark horse because of the sneaky depth in their entire lineup. Their 6-7-8 hitters might be Maikel Franco, Jorge Alfaro, and J.P. Crawford, all of whom have absurdly high ceilings. While their floors are also a few dozen feet underneath the basement, there’s a chance, a small chance, that we’ll be looking back at the league’s best lineup in August and wondering how we didn’t see it coming.
Uh, they could all fail, too. So maybe I should take a hit from this inhaler and slow down.
Still, the emergence of Rhys Hoskins and, to a much lesser extent, Nick Williams, gave this team something to look forward to in 2018, and the Phillies smartly pounced on an upgrade this offseason, with Carlos Santana bringing his incredible steadiness to a lineup that needed it. If you’re convinced that Cesar Hernandez and Odubel Herrera are well-rounded, quality players — and you should be — it’s almost impossible not to be impressed.
Of course, they’ll still need to pitch, which is why Arrieta was such a huge deal. Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez will need to find whatever it is they lost between 2016 and now, and they’ll need to get something out of Ben Lively or Nick Pivetta, if not both.
They could win the division. They could finish with 96 losses again. But if I had to push my chips in either direction, I’d err on the side of success. If anyone from the bottom of that order reaches even 75 percent of his potential, nobody is going to want to pitch to the Phillies. And if that once-vaunted young pitching bounces back, this could be a special team.
Pretend that you heard it here first.
New York Mets
In an offseason where almost every team acted like the Mets, the actual Mets decided to transcend their Metsiness and spend just a teensy-tiny more than expected. They ended up with expensive (but productive) sluggers who are going to make a fair amount of outs, and it was their way of announcing to the world that they believe in their pitchers. Specifically, that they can keep them healthy and effective.
Gentle reader, do you believe in the Mets’ ability to keep their players healthy and effective?
Before you answer that, note that Jacob deGrom had back issues this spring.
Also, Yoenis Cespedes had wrist issues, but the Mets kept playing him in the spring for whatever reason, and when he got an x-ray, it sure sounded like his manager didn’t even know about it. While Cespedes is [checks] not a pitcher, the question was about if you believe in the Mets’ ability to keep people healthy.
If you do, then look at this team! Matt Harvey might have his movement back, but even if he’s disappointing again, there’s Noah Syndergaard and deGrom and Steven Matz, with Jason Vargas helping to ease their burden. They’ll have Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo in a glass case, which is a fine contingency plan. They’ll have a lineup that’s a mix of old (Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier, Cespedes) and new (Amed Rosario, Brandon Nimmo, and Michael Conforto when he returns), and while they won’t be setting any OBP records, it’s not like you have to invent a new branch of physics to explain how they are all capable of scoring enough runs to help the Mets win.
If you’re skeptical of the Mets’ ability to keep anybody healthy or act like a normal team, you already have enough material to reach the moon and back. It’s possible that Bruce and Frazier were the missing pieces, and that all the Mets really needed to do is hope for some better injury luck. It’s also probable, if not likely, that we’re past the point of ascribing the Mets’ injury armageddons to “bad luck.”
The Mets could be great this year. Forgive me if I’ll need to see some evidence before enthusiastically predicting this, though.
The Braves spent last offseason building a team that wouldn’t lose 110 games in a new ballpark, and they succeeded. There was value in R.A. Dickey helping the Braves avoid the first-overall pick, I promise.
This offseason was duller, and it’s going to be another bridge season for the Braves, who will be excellent soon, but probably not this year. The lineup starts off well, with Ender Inciarte (yes), Ozzie Albies (YES), and Freddie Freeman (YES!!!) offering a glimpse of a promising present and future, but then it quickly devolves into Tyler Flowers hitting cleanup, Nick Markakis hitting fifth, and Ronald Acuña in the minors for another month to “work on the little things,” such as plate discipline and being underpaid for longer. There will be answers for all of those questions at some point, if not this year, but it’s hard to predict that the Braves are going to have all of their young talent break through this season.
In a best-case scenario, Brandon McCarthy is solid and reliable all season, Julio Teheran is fixed, and Sean Newcomb and Mike Foltynewicz sand down some of their rough edges. While this is going on, young hitters are coming up to bolster the lineup, and the farm system is the I Love Lucy chocolate assembly line, but in the best possible way.
In a worst-case scenario, none of this happens.
In a medium-case scenario, there are some pitchers who disappoint and some who do okay. There are some promising young players, but several others who don’t quite adjust as quickly to the majors as hoped. The lineup has some steady hitters, but not enough of them.
I’ll take that medium-case scenario. The Braves are a living SOON meme, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re still a horse staring out of a second-story window.
I’ll probably do an entire column on this before the season, so I don’t want to give it all away, but can you imagine what this team would have looked like if they had taken advantage of the soft market this winter? They already had a historically great outfield, along with one of the best catchers in baseball. That’s a pretty freaking impressive head start. If new owners came into this situation with the idea that they were going to make an impression with their new fan base, they could have walked away with two or three new starting pitchers and still kept the payroll at a reasonable level.
Instead, here’s an abysmal team and another data point that the Marlins will always break the hearts of their fans. There’s no chance that they’ll have anything as impressive and sustainable as Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Marcell Ozuna combining to make a combined $45 million through most of their 20s. There’s a chance that they’ll have Lewis Brinson and two others making $10 million or less through most of their 20s, but it will come without all that pesky production or guarantees that the savings will be reinvested in the team.
The Marlins were talented at hitting baseballs, and all they needed to do was find pitchers. It was an offseason filled with pitchers. So they decided to do the obvious thing: Make sure that they wiped some of their future payroll commitments off the ledger because, phew, they just leveraged themselves to buy a baseball team, and those things are expensive.
It’s a shame. Maybe Project Wolverine will work out. Maybe they’ll be the new Astros in three years, and I’ll have to eat all of these words. It sure would have made a lot more sense to look at the best outfield in baseball, notice that they were supported by other rare talents, and wonder how best to turn the team into something Miami would care about.
Chances of the fourth-place team winning the division: Not great, but entirely possible. The roster is better than you think.
Chances of the fifth-place team winning the division: Also not great, but they shouldn’t lose as many games this year, at least.
St. Louis Cardinals
Yes, this is another case of me being too clever by half. There’s no reward that comes with picking the Cubs every year and being right. It’s the obvious pick, and they’re a really loaded team.
Just have a feeling about the Cardinals, y’all.
It’s a feeling that comes from some tangible science. Marcell Ozuna is an almost perfect fit for the lineup. They’re deep enough that their eighth-place hitter could conceivably hit first and vice-versa. I believe in Luke Weaver’s ability to dominate immediately, and I believe in the front office’s ability to scout Miles Mikolas and make an educated guess as to how he’ll fare against major leaguers.
It’s also a feeling that comes from belief in the bogeyman. This was from last spring:
Jose Martinez is going to hit .300 with 15 homers for the Cardinals this year
Had no idea who he was, really. Just pulled a name, looked at his minor-league numbers, and figured the Cardinals would pull some crap.
He doesn’t have to hit .300 with 15 homers in 500 at-bats. Let’s not get nonsensical. He can do it in 200 at-bats, say, and become a huge, Kevin Mass-type story for the last two months. He could spread it out over 350 at-bats, filling in against tough left-handers.
He hit .309 with 14 homers over 307 plate appearances, filling in against tough left-handers. The Cardinals do this every year. And it’s my belief that Andrew Knizner will fill in for Yadier Molina after an injury in August and hit at least three game-winning home runs. Never heard of him before now. It’s just so danged Cardinals it hurts.
Mostly, though, I like the depth that Martinez and Harrison Bader provide to the lineup, as well as the depth in the rotation afforded by John Gant, Jack Flaherty, and (eventually) Alex Reyes. They aren’t throwing all of their chips into a crumbly Adam Wainwright basket, although it would be exceptionally Cardinals if he won 18 games, too.
It’s been a while since we’ve had a pure example of Patented Cardinals Malarky. The time is nigh.
Just typing out their rotation makes me second guess myself. Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, and Tyler Chatwood. Maybe not in that order, not that it matters. That’s a helluva rotation, with the potential to be the best in baseball. The lineup features Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, which is as good as any 1-2 combo in baseball, and the entire starting eight is under 30, with no reasons for any of them to be worse than last year. They should have seven — seven! — players hit 20 home runs or more this year, which would tie a major league record.
It’s not that I doubt the Cubs’ talent. It’s that I fear the Cardinals’ malarky. It’s been too quiet recently.
Really, I’m predicting a repeat of the absurdly top-heavy 2015 NL Central, just without the Pirates. The Cubs are a team without a noticeable flaw, and they addressed exactly what they needed to in the offseason. It was almost breaking my heart to watch Joe Maddon trot out Carl Edwards, Jr. in every crucial postseason scenario last year, but they’ll have Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek to help with that now. The farm system isn’t what it was (mostly because of graduations), but it’s strong enough to help them get whatever they’ll need at the deadline, so it’s possible that we’re all underrating what’s already a great roster.
If there are things to nitpick, they’re at the bottom of the lineup, which could be a speed bump of low OBPs and limited production, but it’s almost silly to quibble about that. The bench could feature Ben Zobrist, Albert Almora, Jr., and Tommy La Stella, which means it has a chance to be the best bench in baseball by leaps and bounds.
I’ll get them in the NLDS in my postseason predictions, don’t worry. Just focused on those stupid Cardinals right now. Don’t trust them.
I really do appreciate the go-fer-it mentality that led to the Brewers trading for Christian Yelich and signing Lorenzo Cain. Yelich’s left-handed swing is absolutely perfect for Miller Park, and he’s going to have a monster season. A quasi-platoon with Eric Thames and Ryan Braun is surprisingly sensible, and it’s hard not to expect better things out of Jonathan Villar. As an early adopter of the Brewers last year, it’s not like I’m not going to notice that there’s still a lot to like this year.
The rotation is scary as hell, though. It is a slapdash assortment of twigs and adobe, and I don’t trust it. Wade Miley and Yovani Gallardo are actually competing for a rotation spot in this, 2018. Jhoulys Chacin is probably going to give solid innings, but it’s also possible that he’ll be the team’s best pitcher, and they’ll need more than that. I’m not sure how Chase Anderson became something close to an ace as a 29-year-old, but I’m also not sure why we should expect it to continue when he’s 30. I have the same trust issues with Zach Davies, who thrived with a low strikeout rate and a suspiciously low home run rate.
All of Anderson, Davies, and Chacin should be fine, and maybe fine is all the Brewers need with their lineup. In an offseason with Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta floating around, though, I expected more. Their margin for error was already thin this offseason, and it’s always rough when a team that might finish a game away from the postseason is fooling around with Wade Miley and others from the very beginning.
Considering where they were when they hired David Stearns, though, it’s hard not to be impressed at what the Brewers have built. They’ll contend. They’ll draw well. They’ll probably do both of those next year, too. There’s no shame in finishing behind the Cubs and Cardinals, but at some point, they’ll have to figure out what they need to do to overtake them.
It used to be so natural to mention Marte-McCutchen-Polanco in the same breath as Ozuna-Yelich-Stanton. It was a fun argument to have. And now ... this. Gregory Polanco had the worst season of his career. So did Starling Marte, except his season came with a PED suspension. McCutchen is gone, and so is Gerrit Cole. Both of them were the first-round scores the Pirates deserved but never seemed to find during their decades of misery. Both of them almost got the team to championshipsville.
And now ... this.
This isn’t bad! The lineup has reasonable solutions, both long and short term, throughout. Josh Harrison might be a solid leadoff hitter. A Marte-Josh Bell-Polanco middle of the order might do just fine. Corey Dickerson might build off his All-Star season. This could be the year that Jameson Taillon breaks out, and Ivan Nova and Chad Kuhl could eat enough innings to keep the Pirates in most of their games. Of their projected 25-man roster, at least 20 of the players would absolutely interest most teams if they were offered up for free. They are helpful players. The other five might be, too, but I’d have to think a little more about it.
This is how surprising teams are built, with a preponderance of quality players who should be on 25-man rosters. With that kind of foundation, there’s always room for surprises. Tyler Glasnow and Taillon emerging as a gnarly 1-2 punch? Marte and Polanco both bouncing back with All-Star seasons? Josh Bell hitting 40 homers? It’s not like any of them are likely to happen, but if a few things break right, there will be quality players around them.
Of course, this was true last year, and it was a chemical spill of a season, so ...
Better than you think.
That’s a shifting statement. It all depends on how good you think the Reds are in the first place. I mean, I certainly didn’t have to look up two of the starters projected to be in the rotation — Sal Romano and Tyler Mahle — because I’m a professional baseball writer. Of course I knew who they were. But you probably didn’t, which speaks to just how paper-thin the rotation is.
Ha ha, I definitely knew who they were. One of them is a top-100 prospect! Imagine being me and not knowing him, ha ha ha.
The Reds were a 94-loss team last year. Not just that, but they are a team that has allowed more than 240 freaking home runs in each of the last two seasons. Considering they added only Cliff Pennington and three middle relievers in the offseason, it’s easy to think they’re going to lose 94 games again, if not more.
They’re better than that, though, with a lineup that features yes-that-guy-should-be-here players from top to bottom. The only exception to that description might be Joey Votto, who is so good that he would be of more help somewhere else, but no one else will help the Reds win more. They’ll have a full year of Luis Castillo, fastball warlock, and a bullpen that should be improved. If that rotation freaks you out, which it should, note that both Anthony DeSclafani and Brandon Finnegan should be back soon, which will at least give them more pitchers who could be around for the next contending Reds team.
So what does “better than you think” mean? A team with as much of a chance to finish .500 as lose 100 games, with the correct prediction being somewhere in the middle. They have one of the better hitters in baseball and some talented young bats around him. That’s not nothing, and it should help them win more games than expected.
Chances of the fourth-place team winning the division: Outstanding, comparatively speaking. The Rockies are a good team that’s not getting a lot of respect (including here).
Chances of the fifth-place team winning the division: San Diego might have the best weather in the country.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Okay, we get it. You’re good. Stop it.
Cody Bellinger’s mad flailing in the postseason made it too easy to forget that he was just 21, the age of the typical college draftee, when he hit 39 homers and finished with a .933 OPS. Corey Seager has quietly been one of baseball’s best players for two seasons, so it’s easy to forget that he’s 23. Chris Taylor was one of the scariest hitters in the World Series, and it’s terrifying to think that the Dodgers helped rebuild him, just like they did with Justin Turner. Clayton Kershaw has already made the Hall of Fame, and he just turned 30.
But the Dodgers were tied for last in regular season games played in 2017 (162). What do they have to say about that?
That’s what I thought.
No, the Dodgers are going to win the NL West for the sixth straight year, and it’s not going to be particularly close. If a starting pitcher goes down, they’ll have some of the best prospects in baseball to fill in the gap. If a position player goes down, they’ll have the depth to replace him (and, indeed, Justin Turner broke his wrist before this published, and they’ll be fine.)
If none of this works, they’ll trade for someone(s) at the deadline. They’re not a perfect team, but they’re certainly the least imperfect team. They have youth, they have power, they have speed, they have defense, they have starting pitching, they have relief pitching, they have money. They haven’t won a World Series since talkies were invented, but that’s a minor concern.
For fun, I’d like you to imagine the kind of Dodgers team that doesn’t win the NL West. Don’t just pretend it’s a team with a million injuries, because that’s been the Dodgers the last couple years. Maybe some of those injuries were “injuries” to take advantage of the new 10-day DL, but they’ve lost Kershaw. They’ve lost Seager. They’ve been without Turner. Adrian Gonzalez went away and never came back.
It’s not an impossible exercise, but you get to the point where it’s like, “Dunno, maybe Andrew Toles would be forced to pitch?,” and you realize that it’s not bloody likely that the Dodgers finish anywhere other than first place.
San Francisco Giants
There is stiff competition for this spot, and it’s hard to give the nod to the group of bozos who lost 96 games last year. They had an active offseason, but it involved getting 2013 All-Stars. Is this really a team that can contend over two teams that made the postseason last year?
Yeah, probably. For one, the Giants weren’t that bad last year. They just weren’t. THEY JUST WEREN’T, DAMMIT. Please leave me alone.
Don’t forget the differences between the projections of their key players and what actually happened:
The 2017 San Francisco Giants, projections vs. reality
|Player||Projected WAR||Actual WAR||Δ|
|Player||Projected WAR||Actual WAR||Δ|
Maybe the inability of some of these players to play up to their expectations had to do with actual, irreversible decline. These are over-30 players, for the most part.
But I’m guessing that a lot of them weren’t as good as they had been in the past because of circumstances that aren’t guaranteed to repeat. Dirt bikes, concussions, and blisters, for example. General poopiness, for another.
More importantly for their 2018 fortunes, though, is that the Giants did a lot to fix some of their biggest problems. Last year’s team had one of the worst outfields in baseball history, an appalling carousel of players like Drew Stubbs and Stu Drubbs and Dubs Strew, none of whom could add value with their bats, gloves, or legs. Well, here’s Andrew McCutchen and Austin Jackson, neither of whom are as good as they used to be, but are both huge, immediate upgrades.
Last year’s team couldn’t hit. This year’s team features a lineup in which the worst hitter might be Hunter Pence, and if he struggles, there actually happens to be an honest-to-goodness prospect waiting in Triple-A. Third base was something of a hole, but here comes Evan Longoria.
No, McCutchen and Longoria aren’t the players they used to be, but they could be the players they were last year, which is plenty good enough.
Plus, don’t forget that a lot of the Giants should progress toward the mean. Last year was just that bad.
I waffled on this one for a while, putting the Giants in third, then swapping them, then swapping them again, and then moving the Rockies ahead of both of them. This is a strange, tight division to predict.
But then Zack Greinke started soft-tossing. Then he suffered a groin injury. The Diamondbacks have understated depth in the rotation, and Robbie Ray might be the most underrated pitcher in baseball, but they really need Greinke at his best. They’re unlikely to get that, at least for the first part of the season.
If they could count on Greinke, they would be a second-place team, most likely. Their trade for Steven Souza was cagey, and he’ll fit in well with the Lamb-Goldschmidt middle of the order that was already in place. The lineup is filled with players who should get on base 35 percent of the time, give or take, and have enough power to drive in the other players who get on base 35 percent of the time. The rotation is solid-to-impressive, even without Greinke, and the discovery of Archie Bradley’s penchant for relief (and addition of Brad Boxberger) could turn their bullpen into a strength.
Maybe I’m just a homer who’s too smitten with Andrew McCutchen, I don’t know.
The Diamondbacks have a lot going for them, but the lineup is missing J.D. Martinez, and that’s no small detail. My guess is somewhere between 85 and 95 wins, with the smart money erring toward the former. Remember the Plexiglas Principle and adjust accordingly.
The only prediction I feel comfortable with is that the fourth-place team in the NL West won’t deserve it. All of these teams would probably be the second-place team in the NL East or AL Central, but we have to pick just one for fourth place here. The Rockies, who had two viable MVP candidates in the same lineup last year, are a tough choice for fourth.
But I am a cruel prediction master, and I really, truly hate Dinger.
Mostly, I’m wondering about a lineup that finished with a below-average OPS+ last year and didn’t make any substantial additions. I’m more confident about the young, promising rotation, but those young pitchers are forever at the mercy of Coors Field, and last year might be hard to sustain. That would explain the investment in Wade Davis and Bryan Shaw, but bullpens are a fickle friend.
It’s easy to look at the stats for players like D.J. LeMahieu (.310 with a .374 OBP!) and think that they’re plus, plus hitters, but the shadow of Coors Field creeps up here, too. The Rockies had just four hitters out of 41 reach an adjusted OPS that was better than the league average, which means that once you adjust for park effects, they were like the Giants or Phillies, except they had a couple of MVP candidates to boost their numbers. Two of those above-average hitters (Jonathan Lucroy and Mark Reynolds) are gone now, and there weren’t any additions to the lineup.
The pivot toward the bullpen indicates a clear focus for the Rockies as they try to evolve into a stronger contender, but it also overlooks that the lineup was their real problem last year. If the rotation doesn’t pull them by the nose toward the postseason again, that could be their fatal flaw.
San Diego Padres
Eric Hosmer will make them better. I’m not so sure about the decision to make Wil Myers a full-time outfielder, but Hosmer will improve the clubhouse, and he’ll still be productive when the Padres’ top-ranked farm system starts producing major leaguers.
However, I would like you to consider what’s sadder: that the Padres went out of their way to acquire Freddy Galvis, or that he has a chance to be one of the best shortstops in franchise history. If you look at the history, you can see where he slots in among Alexi Amarista, Everth Cabrera, and Damian Jackson. That was the other major addition to the lineup.
That’s before you get to the rotation, which at least has a clear Opening Day starter. Unfortunately, that Opening Day starter is Clayton Richard, who posted a 4.79 ERA (albeit with a 4.23 FIP) at the age of 33 and made 32 starts after years of working mostly in relief. There are so many concerns with that last sentence, I’m not sure where to start, and he’s followed by high-upside/low-reliability youngsters Luis Perdomo and Dinelson Lamet, who could be above average, but will need their first average season before making anyone predict that outcome seriously. Then there are Tyson Ross and Bryan Mitchell, who both have some measure of upside, but it adds up to a rotation that is as unreliable as the one that led them to 91 losses last year.
Don’t forget that the Padres’ Pythagorean record was a cool 59-103 last year, though. Hosmer should bring them back from that particular abyss, but it’s not like there were a lot of substantial improvements around him. However they improve this season will likely come from the minor leagues. They have a robust system, so it’s not impossible.
It’s just not likely, and where the other teams in their division have at least three or four viable middle-of-the-order hitters on the roster, the Padres have two. And where the other teams have at least one or two aces on the roster, the Padres don’t have any. It makes for a tough degree of difficulty, and they’re at least a year away, if not three.
Manuel Margot gonna break out this year, though.
Postseason and award predictions
Cubs over Phillies
Red Sox over A’s
Dodgers over Cubs
Cardinals over Nationals
Yankees over Red Sox
Astros over Indians
Cardinals over Dodgers
Yankees over Astros
Yankees over Cardinals
Rookie of the Year