Yesterday, I published my picks for the National League. While I’m writing this a couple of days in advance, I just want to let all you Cubs, Mets and Phillies fans know to keep the hate mail coming (my crystal ball works for more than baseball). Today, I’m turning my crystal ball to the American League, where I’m sure I’ll upset some other fan base. So let’s begin this on the left coast, shall we?
- Houston Astros
- Los Angelos Angels of Anaheim
- Seattle Mariners
- Texas Rangers
- Oakland Athletics
Look, as much as we may not want to admit it, Houston may be even better than last year and they’re playing in what is arguably baseball’s worst division. It is entirely plausible that not only will the Astros surpass 100 wins, but win the AL West by 20+ games. Yes, the rotation lost Dallas Keuchel, but free agent signee Wade Miley is almost a clone. The bullpen should be better with a full season of Roberto Osuna in place of Ken Giles. As for the offense, losing Marwin Gonzales and Brian McCann will hurt some, but a full season of Tyler White and the addition of Michael Brantley will more than offset those players.
The Angels hopes rest on the fragile arms of their starting rotation, which hasn’t combined for even 90 starts in the last three seasons. But baseball’s consensus best player, center fielder Mike Trout, a top five left fielder in Justin Upton and a much-improved defense, led by our generation’s “Wizard”, shortstop Justin Upton, will keep the Angels around .500 this year.
The Mariners traded away almost their entire team this winter. The rebuild is on. If you live in Seattle, you do have right fielder Mitch Haniger and the latest Japanese phenom, Yusei Kukuchi. Other than that, it’s going to be a long season.
But not as long as it will be in Arlington. The Rangers are still in the midst of a rebuild seemingly designed around strikeouts. Unfortunately, those strikeouts are coming from their young hitters and not their pitchers. Joey Gallo, Nomar Mazara, Rougnod Odor and Elvis Andrus may combine for 500 strikeouts this year. Yes, they’ll hit some moonshots in Texas. But the offense’s propensity for leaving men on, combined with a jello pitching staff of never were’s and never will be’s could well mean a 100 loss season.
Oakland was a feel-good story last year. This year, reality will come crashing back on the green and gold. The A’s are going to try and piece together a starting rotation from a bunch of retreads and castoffs, similar to last year, but last year every roll of the dice worked and they had Sean Manea to head things up. This year, no such luck. It’s also hard to believe closer Blake Treinen will replicate an ERA below 1 again. Yes, they have possibly the two best corner infielders in the league in Matt Chapman and Matt Olson, and Khris Davis will likely hit 40 bombs again. But the rest of the team is pretty meh. Last year’s team shocked the world and won 97 games. This year’s version will shock the world again, but by losing 90+ games.
- Minnesota Twins
- Cleveland Indians (WC)
- Chicago White Sox
- Kansas City Royals
- Detroit Tigers
Yes, I’m going out on a limb and picking the Twins to unseat Cleveland in the Central. But I like every move Minnesota made this offseason. They rebuilt their infield, adding Jonathon Schoop, CJ Cron, and Marwin Gonzalez. They added an ageless hitting machine in Nelson Cruz to be their primary DH. The starting rotation features young aces Jose Berrios and Kyle Gibson, and perhaps the most quality depth in the junior circuit. The biggest area of concern will be their bullpen, but this is a team with the depth to make a move at the deadline if they need a reliever or two. 90+ wins for this team is a distinct possibility, although in this weak division 85 might get the job done.
No team had a worse winter than the Indians. They went into November needing outfield help and maybe a second baseman. They arrived in March needing outfielders, a second baseman, a starting catcher, a first baseman, and middle relief help. Yes, the 1-2-3-4 punch of Kluber-Bauer-Carrasco-Clevinger in the starting rotation is the best in the league. But outside of Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez, there really isn’t much on hand. Hall of Fame candidate and manager Terry Francona is going to be hard pressed to keep the Tribe from finishing under .500 this year.
The rest of the division is kind of a toss-up, but I’m going with the White Sox simply because some of their young talent looks ready for the major leagues. Finishing with a winning record is probably beyond their ability, but watching Eloy Jimenez, Yoan Moncada, Yolmer Sanchez and Adam Engel will at least make the ChiSox exciting to watch.
Kansas City will lead the league in stolen bases. GM Dayton Moore has stockpiled a team full of speedsters, led by possibly the best second baseman in the game, Whit Merrifield. He’ll have plenty of competition for the stolen base crown from teammates Adelberto Mondesi, Billy Hamilton and Brett Phillips, provided that trio can actually get on base.
Detroit is waiting on trading right fielder Nick Castellanos and watching first baseman Miguel Cabrera add to his Hall of Fame resume. Other than that, the Tigers will battle Baltimore for the worst record in the league.
- New York Yankees
- Boston Red Sox (WC)
- Toronto Blue Jays (WC)
- Tampa Bay Rays
- Baltimore Orioles
The division last year featured two 100 win teams, in the Yankees and Red Sox. This year, the Yankees set about improving their weaknesses while Boston suffered some big player losses. Those two factors will give the Bronx Bombers a slight edge for the division title this year. New York added starting pitcher James Paxton, re-signed JA Happ to be the fourth starter and brought back CC Sabathia for one final go-round in his Hall of Fame career. An offense that set the major league record with 269 home runs last season has a legitimate shot at topping 300 dingers, with full seasons from Aaron Judge, Greg Bird and Gleyber Torres, valuable additions Troy Tulowitzki and Luke Voit, and bounce back years from Gary Sanchez and Clint Frazier. But the key to New York’s season will be their bullpen, possibly the most dominant in history with All-Stars Dellin Betances, Adam Ottavino and Zack Britton setting up closer Aroldis Chapman.
Boston returns much of the same team from last year, but is missing two key members of that team’s bullpen: setup man Joe Kelly is now a Dodger and closer Craig Kimbrel is (unbelievably) still a free agent. Boston hopes to fill their spots from within. Otherwise, they’ll continue to a rely on well above starting pitching, paced by Chris Sale and David Price and abundant offense, led by the game’s best right fielder, Mookie Betts and DH JD Martinez. The Red Sox and Yankees will be in a dogfight until the last week of the season, and the possibility of both teams eclipsing 100 wins again remains a real possibility.
The Blue Jays were one of last year’s most disappointing teams, but will be one of this year’s pleasant surprises. Vladimir Guerrero, Jr may start the season at AAA, but by May he’ll be in Toronto, solidifying a deep lineup that includes Lourdes Gurriel at short, All-Star first baseman Justin Smoak, Brandon Drury at second and Randall Grichuk in right field. But the biggest improvement will be in the pitching, with Marcus Stroman reclaiming his spot among the games best, Aaron Sanchez finally over his blister problems and Matt Shoemaker leaving the injures that largely sidelined him the past two years in California. Volatile closer Ken Giles may cost this Jays team a couple of wins, but they should still be good enough to sneak into the second Wild Card slot.
Tampa Bay surprised everyone last year by winning 90 games. They’ll still be decent, but not 90 wins decent. No team relied less on their starters last year than the Rays, as they sprang the concept of the “opener” on the baseball world. Despite that, Ian Snell won the AL Cy Young, turning in one of the best seasons by a starting pitcher in recent memory. Additions Charlie Morton and Tyler Glasnow will lend support, but Tampa looks primed to use an opener and their deep, if unproven, bullpen two to three times a week. The offense will be anchored by left fielder Tommy Pham and catcher Mike Zunino, while a cast of youngsters (Austin Meadows, Brett Duffy, Yandy Diaz and Willy Adames being the most prominent) tries to acclimate themselves to the major league game.
Baltimore lost 110 games last year. It’s possible this year’s team will be even worse. The most exciting thing will be to see if former All-Star first baseman Chris Davis descent into being the worst player in the major leagues continues. Beyond that, buy a scorecard if you go to an Orioles game, because otherwise you won’t know the players.
We’re less than a month away from meaningful baseball games beginning and that can only mean one thing. Yes friends, it is time once again for my predictions. Last year, I picked 3 of 6 divisions correctly. But the Braves were a shocker to almost everyone, I didn’t miss on the Brewers by much (I had them in the Wild Card game), and the Red Sox were much better than pretty much anyone expected last Spring. Anyway, here’s this year’s picks, beginning with what should be baseball’s most interesting division.
- Washington Nationals
- Philadelphia Phillies (WC)
- Atlanta Braves
- New York Mets
- Florida Marlins
This division should be a dogfight until the last game of the season, but I’m picking the Nationals for one reason: their pitching staff should be the best in the division, if not all of MLB. Yes, they lost Bryce Harper to the division rival Phillies, but if healthy, Adam Eaton will add more athleticism in right field, while Victor Robles in center will be a contender for Rookie of the Year. There are still plenty of big bats, led by Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman, and Juan Soto to make for a top-notch lineup.
The Phillies made multiple significant additions besides Harper. Catcher JT Realmuto and shortstop Jean Segura are a pair of All-Star caliber players obtained in shrewd trades, and veteran free agent Andrew McCutcheon was an equally shrewd signing. They added another proven veteran to their bullpen in David Robertson. In fact, the Phillies could have a really good bullpen, if second-year man Seranthony Dominguez can replicate last season’s success and old pros Tommy Hunter and Pat Neshek can stay off the injured list. Combined with what should be one of the league’s best offenses, that will be enough to contend for a Wild Card berth. The one thing holding this team back is their starting rotation, which right now is Aaron Nola, a declining Jake Arrietta and a cast of hundreds.
The Braves added third baseman Josh Donaldson, who will want to prove he has more left in the tank. Added to perennial MVP candidate Freddie Freeman and last year’s Rookie of the Year, left fielder Ronald Acuna and super-utilityman Johann Camargo, Atlanta will be another high scoring team that will only go as far as their pitching can take them. The Braves are relying on a bunch of unproven kids, led by All-Star Mike Foltynewicz. That bodes well for 2020, but not so much for 2019.
The Mets are another team that has made wholesale changes. New GM Brodie van Wagenen brought in the ageless Robinson Cano to play second base, Jed Lowrie to play everywhere, All-Star Wilson Ramos to catch and last year’s best closer in Edwin Diaz. However, age and injuries will once again be the New Yorker’s biggest problem and will end their season by mid-August. Still, the Mets have two intriguing rookies in first basemen Peter Alonso and Dominic Smith. Look for one of them to be traded at the deadline for a nice return.
Finally, the Marlins, whose best player is either Starlin Castro or Neil Walker. Yep, enough said.
- St. Louis Cardinals
- Milwaukee Brewers
- Pittsburgh Pirates
- Chicago Cubs
- Cincinnati Reds
The Cardinals quietly had one of the better offseasons of any team in baseball. They added first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, which automatically improved their defense and offense. That shifted Matt Carpenter back to third. The offense, led by Goldschmidt, Carpenter, left fielder Marcell Ozuna and shortstop Paul DeJong, will be among the league’s best. The Cards have been done in by bullpen woes the past couple of seasons, but the addition of Andrew Miller will help settle that unit down, and only the Dodgers have a deeper rotation.
Still, St. Louis isn’t going to run away with the division. The defending division champion Brewers return the bulk of their team from last season, including MVP right fielder Christian Yellich and Mike Moustakas trying to make the switch to second base. And like last year, the Milwaukee will try to ride a mix-and-match rotation and dominant bullpen to another division crown. Unlike last year, that rotation instability will leave them just short of both first place and a Wild Card berth.
Pittsburgh remains a team that seemingly will never spend on players. Despite that, they’ll still be in contention when the calendar turns to September, led by a young and excellent rotation, headed by Chris Archer and Jamison Taillon. A middling offense, paced by Cory Dickerson and my candidate for this year’s breakout player, Colin Moran, will score just enough runs to power the Bucs to a winning record and respectable third place finish.
Is there any team with more internal turmoil than the Cubs? While that formula worked for the Yankees of the late 70s, it usually spells doom. So it will be for the North Siders this year. The talent is certainly there to contend, with an offense led by Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ. But the rotation is far from settled, with Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood looking to make good on their untradeable contracts, an aging Jon Lester and Jose Quintana wondering if he should have stayed on the South Side. The bullpen may be a strength – or a weakness if last year’s injury woes repeat. Add in the drama around shortstop Addison Russell and manager Joe Maddon’s contract status, and Chicago looks set up for a fourth place finish and their first losing season since 2015.
Cincinnati made a lot of moves this offseason and definitely improved their team. They still have first baseman Joey Votto and second baseman Scooter Gennett, and imported outfielders Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig along with pitchers Sonny Gray, Alex Wood, and Tanner Roark. The Reds won’t be dreadful and if they catch a few breaks could even finish above .500. But they are in the wrong division to have dreams of competing.
- Los Angelos Dodgers
- Colorado Rockies (WC)
- Arizona Diamondbacks
- San Diego Padres
- San Francisco Giants
The Dodgers biggest addition will be the return of young shortstop Cory Seager, who should cement their offense. Free agent center fielder AJ Pollock has some serious injury history, but LA’s habit of mix-and-matching players should keep him rested enough to avoid those. As always, everything in Tinseltown begins and ends with their starting rotation, which goes ten deep with quality options. That rotation is backed by a top-five bullpen, still headlined by Kenley Jansen.
The Rockies may play in a hitter’s paradise, but their team didn’t really take advantage of it last year. This year, with the addition of Daniel Murphy (who will slide from second to first base), the promotion of promising rookie Ryan McMahon and David Dahl getting a full-time slot in right field, that looks to change. Provided young starters Kyle Freeland, German Marquez, and Tyler Anderson continue to give the team quality innings, a 90 win season and Wild Card berth is likely.
Arizona is a team that can’t quite transition to rebuild mode, so long as ace Zack Greinke and his $34 million salary are in the desert. They traded away perennial MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt and slid Jake Lamb over from third to man his spot. They also lost AJ Pollock. In short, the Snake’s offense and defense will be dramatically worse than last season. While getting to .500 will be a struggle for team, this division is so weak that a third place finish is likely.
San Diego has Manny Machado and some of the best young talent in baseball. Those storylines alone will make the Padres one of the more interesting teams to follow, but the Friars are still a couple of years away from contending.
The Giants have Buster Posey, Madison Bumgardner and the memories of championships past. They also have a cold, foggy baseball stadium, which will be a fitting venue for one of baseball’s dreariest teams this year. 100 losses is a distinct possibility for this historic franchise.
Tomorrow, I’ll turn my sights on the American League.
A month ago, I wrote that the Yankees GM, Brian Cashman, needed to get off his duff and get to work retooling the Yankees roster. While I would like to take credit for the moves he made since, I doubt that had anything to do with it. But, other than a bolt-from-the-blue move (hello, Max Scherzer?) or some work on the roster fringes, Cashman has revamped the Yankees for the 2015 season. Now the question is, can the rebuilt squad contend?
First, a caveat: at this point of the year, a team would have to be facing serious problems to think they couldn’t contend. Between parity and the two wild-cards in each league, even seriously flawed teams have to think they have at least a puncher’s chance at earning a playoff spot. Even with the problems the Yankees face heading into 2015, contention is a definite probability. But then again, on paper the Marlins, Mets and Brewers are all contenders, too. No, these are the Yankees and what I’m talking about is actually being a force to reckoned with come October.
Well, the short answer is: probably not. It isn’t for lack of talent. The “back of the baseball card” theory of talent evaluation would lead you to believe that, if everything breaks right, the Yankees could win 105 games and sweep into the playoffs a prohibitive favorite to win it all. But there are too many questions, too many “ifs” and too many aging players on this roster to truly believe that will happen. Here’s a short list of things that need to break right:
*CC Sabathia‘s knee is fully healed and doesn’t bother him at all. In fact, it turns out the bum knee has been his problem for the past three seasons and he turns in a vintage 20 win, 200+ inning, 200+ strikeout season.
*Masahiro Tanaka‘s right elbow doesn’t reach home plate before one of his splitters some fine June afternoon.
*Ivan Nova comes back from Tommy John surgery with new found command and focus.
*Michael Pineda proves that last season wasn’t just a pine-tar induced haze and becomes the pitcher the Yanks thought they were getting when they sent
the jar of mayo Jesus Montero to Seattle.
*Reports of Nathan Eovaldi developing a killer change up to go along with his 96 mph fastball are true and he realizes the promise that made scouts drool.
*Dellin Betances turns into the kind of closer that makes fans say, “Mariano who?”
*Rob Refsnyder plays an acceptable second base and hits around .290, while fellow rookie Jose Pirela turns into the type of super-sub Yankee fans were expecting to see from Martin Prado.
*Mark Teixeira stays healthy enough to play 140+ games and stops trying to hit every pitch into Hoboken.
*Didi Gregorius hits left handed pitching well enough, and Chase Headley’s back stays strong enough, to keep Brendan Ryan glued to the bench.
*Carlos Beltran plays less like Carlos Danger and more like Carlos Beltran.
*Alex Rodriguez realizes his time has passed and retires. Before Spring Training opens.
And that’s a short list of things that need to happen for the Yankees to be a major force this year. I actually think Pineda will be fine, that Eovaldi will prove to be a steal, that Refsnyder and Gregorius will develop into a very good keystone combination. I doubt any of the rest of the things listed above happen: Tex is a shell of the player the Yanks signed 6 seasons ago, Sabathia seems fated to being a sub-.500, over 5.00 ERA type pitcher these days and even if Nova comes back strong, he’ll remain the enigmatic headcase he’s been for the past 3+ years. Beltran is entering his age 38 season battered from his injury history. And sadly, A-Rod will never walk away from the $60 million still owed him, even if he’s hitting .150 without any homers on the ledger. As for Tanaka, the type of injury he’s nursing should have been addressed with surgery last summer, not the wing-and-a-prayer approach both he and the team are taking.
If things really go bad, the Yankees are looking to get 150 or more innings from an old Chris Capuano, and in all likelihood shuttle guys like Chase Whitley in and out of the rotation during the season. We’ll probably get to see the MLB debuts of stud prospects like Bryan Mitchell and Luis Severino, a year early. Meanwhile, the cache of aging and injury prone players leaves Joe Girardi filling out a line-up card with Ryan, Gregorius, Pirela, Chris Young, Austin Romine and Mason Williams all starting for extended periods. If you want to say “yuck,” feel free. (You’re also excused if you’re unsure who those guys are. Trust me. They’re baseball players.)
That’s the conundrum facing both the Yankees front office and fans this upcoming season. Everything goes great, 95 wins and a division title. Everything goes wrong, 65 wins and the Hal is asking the Astros for directions out of the basement.