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The hits keep on coming – A 2018 MLB preview

March 20, 2018
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Red Sox pitchers run during Spring Training at the Player Development Complex on Wednesday, February 21, 2018. Red Sox pitchers run during Spring Training at the Player Development Complex on Wednesday, February 21, 2018. (staff photo courtesy Matt Stone)

It might be hard to believe, considering how much snow we’ve seen recently, but spring is here. Whatever the weather says, the truth is that baseball season is just around the corner! Spring training is coming to a conclusion – we’re on the verge of seeing games that count!

There’s plenty to be excited about in 2018. The Houston Astros look ready to hit the field as defending champions for the first time in their history. We might get our first legitimate two-way player in nearly a century thanks to the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani. Young superstars like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are playing for what will likely prove to be record-shattering free agent contracts. Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw will continue to build on their Hall of Fame careers.

And once again, I have staved off the inevitable reality of age; we have not one, but two major league baseball players who are older than I am – pitcher Bartolo Colon, now with the Minnesota Twins, and outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, who has returned to the Seattle Mariners, the team where his storied MLB career began.

As for the specifics – who knows? There are going to be a lot of home runs and a lot of strikeouts. There will be stars who perform to expectations and unknowns who shock the world. There will be delightful highs and unfortunate lows. There’s no way to say for certain what will go down on the field in 2018.

But let’s give it a go anyway.

(Division winners – x; Wild Card teams – y)

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American League

AL East

New York Yankees - x

Boston Red Sox - y

Baltimore Orioles

Toronto Blue Jays

Tampa Bay Rays

It hurts my heart to say it, but this Yankees team is going to be a monster. They added reigning NL MVP and MLB home run champ Giancarlo Stanton to a lineup that already included slugging catcher Gary Sanchez and newly-minted single-season rookie home run record holder Aaron Judge. That’s a middle of the lineup that is going to haunt the dreams of pitchers all season long. They’ve got phenomenal arms in the bullpen, led by Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Bettances. They aren’t as strong in the rotation – though Luis Severino made the leap to stardom last season. They might win 100 games. The Red Sox have a pretty darned good team as well; they made their own big-ticket offseason acquisition when they signed free agent outfielder J.D. Martinez; he’ll add punch to an offense whose primary weakness was power. They still have one of the best outfields in the game – Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi and Jackie Bradley Jr. are one hell of a two-way trio. There’s breakout potential on the infield’s left side with Rafael Devers looking to blow up and Xander Bogaerts looking to bounce back. Chris Sale is one of the AL’s best pitchers; if guys like David Price and Rick Porcello can pull it together, their rotation will be formidable. Not as good as the Yankees, but pretty darned good. Baltimore is going to hit a ton of home runs, but they don’t look to have much else going for them. Other than Manny Machado (who might well be trade bait come July), it’s a lineup of one-dimensional sluggers like Chris Davis, though if Jonathan Schoop can continue to improve and Mark Trumbo can recover from his tailspin, they might be able to take a step forward. Their rotation is thin and their bullpen is a mess; honestly, third might be high. It wasn’t long ago that the Blue Jays looked to have a shot at relevance, but that window is rapidly closing. While third baseman Josh Donaldson remains one of the game’s best, aging stars like Troy Tulowitzki are weighing them down. Their pitching isn’t terrible – Marcus Strohman might be an ace – but they just don’t have the talent to measure up in this tough division. Toronto definitely needs a serious old-guy renaissance to make any kind of noise. Finally, Tampa Bay is just sad. They’ve been sloughing off their best players, even shipping face of the franchise Evan Longoria out as they let numerous others go. There’s still some talent here – guys like Chris Archer and Kevin Kiermaier are legit – but for the most part, it’s slim pickings; looks like a long season for the Rays.

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AL Central

Cleveland Indians - x

Minnesota Twins

Chicago White Sox

Kansas City Royals

Detroit Tigers

The Indians have been the class of this division for a couple of years now and they don’t look to be ceding that crown anytime soon. They’re led by one of the most dynamic one-two starting pitching punches in the big leagues. Reigning Cy Young winner Cory Kluber teams with Carlos Carrasco to lead the way in this deep rotation. Meanwhile, there’s an excellent bullpen as well led by Cody Allen and Andrew Miller. Oh, and they’ve got an MVP-caliber young shortstop in Francisco Lindor and a good top-to-bottom lineup. I almost gave the Twins the nod for the second wild card – and they may still win – but last year does look to be a bit of a fluke. That being said, there’s a lot to like in Minnesota. They’ve got a young star poised to break out in Byron Buxton and made some savvy free agent signings to bolster both the lineup (Logan Morrison) and the rotation (Lance Lynn). Brian Dozier is a monster, and while the rotation is aceless, it’s pretty deep. It’s a pretty steep drop after that. The White Sox have been in rebuilding mode for what seems like forever, but while some of the talent from that stretch is starting to make its way to the big leagues, it’s still slow going in Chicago. They’ve got exciting youngsters, with second baseman Yoan Moncada and pitcher Lucas Giolito leading the way. Slugging first baseman Jose Abreu is still here, doing what he does. But for the most part, the team still resembles the squad that was among baseball’s worst last year. And yet – the Royals will be even worse. This Kansas City team has tumbled from the heights of the game over the past few years (not that they really care, because flags fly forever). They lost some of their biggest names in the offseason – both Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain signed elsewhere – but they did bring back Mike Moustakas. Salvador Perez is still one of the league’s better catchers. Alex Gordon is still … a guy. The pitching will be iffy at best; the rotation is underwhelming and the bullpen is a question mark. However, the favorite for worst AL team has to be the Detroit Tigers. If this was five years ago, this team might have something, but guys like Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez are very much showing their ages these days. That erosion at the heart of the lineup – along with a rotation that is basically Michael Fulmer and a bunch of dudes who are old and/or broken – would seem to indicate that things have stalled out in the Motor City.

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AL West

Houston Astros - x

Los Angeles Angels - y

Oakland Athletics

Seattle Mariners

Texas Rangers

Obviously, we’re picking the reigning World Series champions to repeat in their division. This is not a one-and-done team – these Astros have one of the most talented rosters in MLB. From AL MVP (and personal favorite) Jose Altuve to young stars like Carlos Correa and George Springer to elite starters like Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel, this team has it all. Oh, and they added Gerrit Cole to the rotation this offseason. Even their role players - guys like Evan Gattis – are quality big leaguers. In short – Houston does not have a problem. Picking the Angels to make the playoffs is probably a bit bold, but I love the moves they’ve made. Acquiring guys like Ian Kinsler and Zack Cosart is solid (we’ll leave aside the potential excitement of Shohei Ohtani’s two-way journey). If Garrett Richards can stay healthy, the rotation should be serviceable. And they just happen to have the best player in the game in Mike Trout. The pieces are there for the Angels to make a run. Now, I’ve almost certainly ranked the Athletics too high here. While I like Oakland, the truth is that this is just a gut feeling. Sure, they’ve got a few pieces – Khris Davis hits homers and Matt Olson looks like he will continue to do so – but there’s nothing on this roster that screams star. The rotation will be workmanlike; the bullpen will probably be a little better. Best case scenario, they’re .500; I think they land there, or close. The Mariners probably deserve to be in that third slot, but their window is closing too fast. Stars like Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz on the hitting side and Felix Hernandez on the pitching side are starting to flash glimpses of age – some more than others. If everyone keeps it together, they’ll be pretty good, but they’re in a place where the fall from the cliff might be coming. I do like starter James Paxton and closer Edwin Diaz (assuming both stay healthy), but I think it’s going to be a trying season in Seattle. The Rangers are looking at a season in the cellar. There are definitely some good players here – Adrian Beltre is a Hall of Famer in waiting and Cole Hamels is a solid guy to lead your rotation, while Joey Gallo looks like the second coming of Adam Dunn (in a good way). Young guys like Nomar Mazara and Rougned Odor could be good. Elvis Andrus is still here. If the bullpen and the rotation retreads can play up, maybe Texas stays off the bottom. I wouldn’t count on it, though.

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National League

NL East

Washington Nationals - x

New York Mets

Philadelphia Phillies

Atlanta Braves

Miami Marlins

The Nationals look like they’ll cruise to yet another division crown in 2018. They have one of the best young players in the game in Bryce Harper, who’s looking to bounce back after a tough 2017. Shortstop Trea Turner is a stud. Daniel Murphy, Anthony Rendon, Adam Eaton – the lineup is stacked. And the rotation is phenomenal – Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg have some of the most electric stuff in the game. Washington should win the East in a walk. If the Mets can stay healthy, they’ve got a real shot at one of those Wild Card slots. It’s a big if. There’s incredible talent in the rotation – Noah Syndergaard, Jacob DeGrom, Matt Harvey – but keeping them on the field has been tough. New York also has the delightfully enigmatic Yoenis Cespedes in their outfield and brought in a couple of power guys in Jay Bruce and Todd Frazier. This team could be really good – they just need to stay out of the trainer’s room. Meanwhile, the Phillies might be better than we thought. Hell, they could potentially leapfrog the Mets into second place if the chips fall right. The big move out of Philadelphia was the seemingly out-of-nowhere signing of free agent starter Jake Arrieta, who immediately lends some legitimacy to the Phillies very young rotation. His leadership could make a big difference. Signing Carlos Santana does something similar on the offensive side; if he helps youngsters like Odubel Herrera and Rhys Hoskins and Jorge Alfaro thrive, this could be a scary team to face. The Braves are also on the verge of breaking through with a wealth of young talent. There are SO MANY young arms coming to Atlanta – if even a few of them live up to their potential, this will be a formidable staff. Freddie Freeman remains a perennial MVP candidate and elite hitter; young guys like Dansby Swanson and Ronald Ocuna will be joining him before long. It’s possible that everybody matures at the same time, but not super likely. They’re not ready yet – but soon. The Marlins, on the other hand, may not EVER be ready. They went into sell-off mode following the sale of the team, sending MVP Giancarlo Stanton and young stars like outfielders Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna and infielder Dee Gordon packing. Their lineup stinks, their rotation is kind of terrible and their bullpen might be worse. This will easily be the worst team in the majors in 2018 – and probably 2019 and 2020.

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NL Central

Chicago Cubs - x

St. Louis Cardinals - y

Milwaukee Brewers

Cincinnati Reds

Pittsburgh Pirates

I’m someone who believes that when the Cubs are good, baseball is good. And baseball has been very good for a couple of years now. This Cubs team lost some big parts of their rotation when Jake Arrieta and John Lackey left. Then they signed Yu Darvish and that’s pretty much a push. They lost closer Wade Davis and replaced him with Brandon Morrow. They’ve still got Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo leading the way, with guys like Wilson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber and Javier Baez still in the mix. This team is loaded – which is good, because this is a tough division. Yes, I’m picking the Cardinals to make the playoffs because the Cardinals essentially always make the playoffs. How they do it may change – this season looks to be built around offensive performers like Matt Carpenter and Tommy Pham and Paul DeJong and newcomer Marcell Ozuna, along with ace Carlos Martinez atop an iffy rotation – but in the end, you bet against St. Louis at your peril. And hey – Yadier Molina is still here, which is pretty cool. One never knows quite what to think about the Milwaukee Brewers, but this season looks even more unpredictable than most. They’ve got real talent both offensively and defensively – new additions Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich give Milwaukee one of the better outfields in the game, while guys like Ryan Braun and Ryan Thames add some pop. The rotation overperformed last season, so some regression is likely; however, if they can minimize that reversion, the Brewers could make some noise. All I can think about when I think of the Cincinnati Reds is poor Joey Votto. Votto, who is one of the best hitters of his generation, appears doomed to be underappreciated by Reds fans for the duration of his career. Baseball’s Fastest Man Billy Hamilton plays here – maybe he learns how to hit? There are a couple of empty power guys, a few promising youngsters and a rotation that is really not very good. It’s not going to be a great year in Cincinnati. It’s going to be an even more not great year in Pittsburgh. Franchise cornerstone Andrew McCutchen is gone. Erstwhile ace Gerrit Cole too. It would seem that the window of contention for the Pirates slammed shut even more quickly than usual. There are some talented pieces – Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco spring to mind – but you can expect the fallow years to run quite a bit longer than the fertile ones did in Pittsburgh.

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NL West

Los Angeles Dodgers - x

San Francisco Giants - y

Colorado Rockies

Arizona Diamondbacks

San Diego Padres

The Dodgers made it all the way to the World Series last year. There’s no reason to think that they can’t at least contend again. They’ve got the best pitcher on the planet in Clayton Kershaw, who has put up a solid decade of transcendent pitching. They’ve got slugging Rookie of the Year Cody Bellinger. They’ve got Corey Seager and Joc Pederson and Chris Taylor. They’ve got Justin Turner when his hand is better. They’ve got an elite closer in Kenley Jansen. There’s a lot to love about Los Angeles; they’ve got to be a favorite to win another pennant. It feels bold to pick the Giants this high, but I have a good feeling about what they’re bringing to the table. They’ve got catcher Buster Posey to anchor their lineup, along with quality players like Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford. They also added veteran talents Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen. I like their rotation too – Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija are a strong 1-2-3. Plus, I feel good about their ability to reignite their even year magic. The Rockies are here because of their good young pitching, which is a big change from previous years. They’ve got young starters like Jon Gray and Kyle Freeland throwing hard and getting it done. They’ve got some high-performing hitters like Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon, but most of the rest of the lineup is just OK – not the kind of thing you want to hear when you’re dealing with Coors Field. Expect .500 or so. Ditto the Diamondbacks – while Arizona looked really good last year as a playoff team, I have a feeling that they’re going to step backward. Paul Goldschmidt will be a top-10 player in the league. Guys like A.J. Pollock and Steven Souza and Jake Lamb will be solid. The rotation should be good, led by Zack Greinke with solid performers like Taijuan Walker and Robbie Ray. It just feels like a setback is coming – sorry Arizona. Last (and least), we have the San Diego Padres, who enter yet another season where they’re probably not going to win anything. However, they’re at least making the effort – their signing of Eric Hosmer was the largest in club history. Wil Myers looks like he might finally become something close to the star he was predicted to be. Brad Hand is one of the game’s most exciting relievers. And … that’s kind of it. There are a lot of serviceable guys you’ve never heard of on this team – enough for 70-75 wins.

Last modified on Thursday, 29 March 2018 12:21

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