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Play ball! A 2019 MLB Preview

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New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge. New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge. (AP file photo)

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 2019. The biggest contracts in the history of the game have been signed. The stars are poised to pick up where they left off; reigning MVPs (Mookie Betts and Christian Yelich) and Cy Young winners (Blake Snell and Jacob deGrom) and Rookies of the Year (Shohei Ohtani and Juan Soto) are all ready to get back to work. Meanwhile, new faces like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Eloy Jimenez are almost here. Plus, there are the names that we don’t know well (or at all) yet, but who will capture our attention before the season is through.

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 2019.

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

Tampa Bay Rays

Toronto Blue Jays

Baltimore Orioles

Obviously, I’m not thrilled about picking the Yankees to win the division. Yes, the vitriol we New Englanders bear toward them is considerably lessened in recent years, but still – I don’t like it. But in an objective sense, it’s tough not to pick them to win the division. The offense is led by sluggers like Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge. Miguel Andujar is coming off a great rookie season. The rotation is strong, with newcomer James Paxton added to the mix (though ace Luis Severino is currently out until May). The bullpen is stacked, with closer Aroldis Chapman leading the way. The Yankees look poised for another 100-win season. The Red Sox are coming off an historic 108-win season that ended with a championship. They won’t be as good this year – how could they be? – but they’ll be plenty good. They’ve got the best outfield in baseball in Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi and Jackie Bradley Jr. J.D. Martinez remains one of the best hitters in the game. Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers are solid on the left side. Chris Sale is a top-five starter in the AL; the rest of the rotation looks decent as well. But the bullpen is a bit of a mess with the departure of Craig Kimbrel; until we see that unit gel, it’s hard to put them ahead of the Yankees. The Rays have the misfortune of being in a division with two powerhouses; even when they’re good, they’re usually not good enough. That will likely be the case again this season. The team has some wonderful pitching talent – Blake Snell won the Cy Young Award while leading the rotation – and some unconventional ideas about utilizing it (i.e. the “opener” strategy). They’ve got some players – Tommy Pham, Kevin Kiermaier, Austin Meadows – but they probably won’t hit enough to keep up with the titans at the top. Even so, they could be in the mix for the second wild card spot. There’s no reason to think that Toronto is going to be in any kind of contention this season. They just aren’t there yet. However, Blue Jays fans should be optimistic about their team’s future, because second-generation MLB studs like Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio are on their way up through the pipeline. 2019 might not be great, but this team will be a lot of fun in the future. The Baltimore Orioles are a bad team. Honestly, they might have a shot at being an all-timer of a bad team. Nothing about their lineup, rotation or bullpen looks particularly appealing. Their highest-paid player – Chris Davis – has basically fallen off a cliff and gives no indication of any kind of recovery. They are bad and nondescript and will lose at least 100 games.

AL Central

Cleveland Indians – x

Minnesota Twins

Chicago White Sox

Kansas City Royals

Detroit Tigers

This is the easiest pick of the whole preview, hands down. The Indians are as close to a lock to win this division as a team can be these days. They’ve got a killer starting rotation, led by Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer. They’ve got strong back-end starters too. They have two MVP-level position players on the left side of the infield in Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez. Sure, their outfield situation looks thin and their bullpen is a bit of a mess right now, but it doesn’t really matter. Until proven otherwise, this division is Cleveland’s to lose. I’ll admit to being a bit bullish on the Twins this year. They’ve got some post-hype talent (Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano) that could still break out. Guys like Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler and Jorge Polanco have performed well. Minnesota had some good signings as well – Nelson Cruz and Jonathan Schoop foremost among them. The pitching isn’t great beyond Jose Berrios, but there are some youngsters who might help. The Twins are a few good bounces away from contention. The same can’t be said for any of the other teams in the division, all of whom have a legitimate chance at triple-digit losses. The “best” of the bunch is probably Chicago, depending on the advances made by young talent, although you could just as easily put them at the bottom of the barrel. The White Sox bullpen is better than it has been in a while, but the rotation and lineup leave a lot to be desired. One can only hope that Yoan Moncada reverses his disappointing trajectory and becomes the player Chicago thought he would be. Ditto Lucas Giolito. And they really need top prospect Eloy Jimenez to pan out. Otherwise … yikes. I’m low-key into the Royals right now, even though I think they’re going to be terrible. Aside from young stud Adalberto Mondesi and surprise overperformer Whit Merrifield, there’s not a ton of talent in Kansas City. However, there is a lot of one particular thing here – speed. Like, a LOT of speed. This team won’t be very good – they won’t hit or pitch very well. What they will do is run. It’ll be a throwback, a mid-1980s go-go team in 2019. They’ll lose a ton, but they’ll be fun to watch. The Tigers, on the other hand, will be both bad and bland. Their rotation is OK, but a lot depends on the health of Michael Fulmer. The offense might be borderline abysmal; there’s not much happening bat-wise after Nicholas Castellanos. A bounceback season from Miguel Cabrera would be great to see, if only because a few milestones might help keep the year from feeling like a bleak and begrudgingly inevitable journey to the bottom of the division.

AL West

Houston Astros - x

Los Angeles Angels - y

Oakland Athletics

Seattle Mariners

Texas Rangers

It’s tough to imagine any team taking down the Astros anytime soon, but we have to remember that it was just a few years ago that Houston was one of the worst team’s in baseball. Things can change. Not this year, though – this team remains stacked. Guys like Jose Altuve and George Springer and Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman are all top-tier players, while the rotation is led by Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, both top-10 AL starters. However, things are a little thin after the studs; the pitching staff especially suffered some losses via free agency and injury. Still – they’re more than good enough to cruise. The Angels get the nod here because I have to believe that it is going to happen for them someday – so why not now? They have the best player on the planet in Mike Trout, an all-timer who looks to be an inner circle Hall of Famer. They have some strong supporting pieces in guys like Justin Upton and Kole Calhoun. Shohei Ohtani will only be a hitter this year, but that’s still pretty good – if he gets 500 at-bats, who knows what kind of production he’ll put up. They’ve got a good-looking bullpen as well. However, the rotation appears pretty iffy, without any real dominant arms. Still, their talent will get them to the playoffs. I have a hunch about the Athletics this year, which probably means that they’re going to absolutely crater, so … apologies in advance, Oakland fans. But I do think they could potentially be good – they have some serious power thanks to guys like league home run leader Khris Davis and the Matts (Olson and Chapman). While the bullpen looked good last year, the same can’t be said for the rotation. A mediocre group got dinged by injury and departures; a couple of guys will need to surprise for the A’s to really make some noise. The Mariners were a bit of a surprise last year, greatly outperforming their peripherals. That won’t happen again; this team looks to struggle. Seattle went in on a rebuild, trading away some of their best players for prospects – great for the future, not so much for now. The core of the team is aging out rapidly and there’s almost zero in the way of depth. The only thing keeping the Mariners out of the cellar … is the Rangers, who can’t seem to get out of their own way. Texas has very little going for it. There are a couple of younger talents like Roughned Odor and Nomar Mazara; they’re pretty good. Elvis Andrus is still here. But the pitching staff is made up of castoffs and rehab guys and will struggle to get outs. It’s going to be a long year for the Rangers.

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National League

NL East

Washington Nationals - x

Philadelphia Phillies - y

Atlanta Braves

New York Mets

Miami Marlins

All of a sudden, this is one of the most exciting divisions in baseball. Three of these teams could win the division. Four could conceivably have a shot at a wild card. I’ve got the Nationals taking the division, even despite the loss of Bryce Harper in free agency. Washington still has a formidable team – one made more formidable thanks to the addition of Patrick Corbin to a rotation that already includes Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. Juan Soto is a stud and Victor Robles looks to be one too; Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon are elite talents as well. They have one of the best top-to-bottom rosters in the NL even without Harper. But you could talk me into the Phillies as division winners, particularly because Philadelphia is where Bryce Harper wound up. He joins Rhys Hoskins and fellow newcomer Jean Segura to form the offensive nucleus of a team that was already looking to be on the upswing thanks to the pitching staff, headlined by Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta. Plus, they brought in David Robertson to close. The Phillies are talented; if manager Gabe Kapler’s unconventional tactics click, they could make a big move. But so too could the Atlanta Braves, who I have finishing third despite an offense that features perennial MVP candidate Freddie Freeman and the rapidly ascending Ronald Acuna, both of whom put up preternatural numbers at the plate. Oh, and they signed Josh Donaldson to play third. They’ve got a solid pitching staff as well; while there’s not a ton of star power, there’s a whole lot of depth. If guys keep improving, they could vault both of the teams I have ahead of them and win the division. As for the Mets, well … I’m not sure how we got here. They’re the Mets. And yet … this team could be good. Good enough to challenge the teams ahead of it, which is astounding in and of itself. The rotation is packed with talent – Jacon deGrom won the Cy Young Award, while Noah Syndergaard would be the ace of half the staffs in MLB. Zack Wheeler’s no slouch either. Plus, they added Edwin Diaz to close. The offense isn’t as impressive – though new addition Robinson Cano can still mash – but it could easily be good enough to contend behind that pitching. The one team that we can all feel safe in saying will not win the division is the Miami Marlins. The Marlins are terrible. There’s very little positive to be said about them. Their lineup is bad, having traded away almost everyone with any real offensive value. Their pitching staff is one of the worst in baseball and has little hope of getting better. The Marlins are as last as last can be.

NL Central

Milwaukee Brewers - x

St. Louis Cardinals - y

Chicago Cubs

Cincinnati Reds

Pittsburgh Pirates

This is another division that could potentially go any number of ways. However, it’s not quite as wide open as the East. Milwaukee had a great 2018 season and there’s no reason to think they won’t be able to keep it up going into 2019. Their outfield features reigning MVP Christian Yelich and the criminally underrated Lorenzo Cain, along with Ryan Braun. They’ve got a decent group of infielders and they signed catcher Yasmani Grandal in one of the offseason’s best moves. Their bullpen looks to be mightily effective once again. There are some questions regarding the starting rotation, which looks like a collection of number threes more than anything. Still, they’ve got the goods for 90 wins or more. But then you have the Cardinals, who I essentially pick to make the playoffs every year because they’re the Cardinals and that’s basically what they do. They didn’t last year, so I imagine they’re ready to get back. They’ll do it on the strength of their offense, led by newcomer Paul Goldschmidt, one of the NL’s best all-around players. Matt Carpenter, Kolten Wong and Paul DeJong fill out one of MLB’s best infields. They’ve got some great young pitching; if those arms continue to mature, St. Louis will be a force to be reckoned with. I have the Cubs finishing third, but I wouldn’t be stunned if they moved up. They still have some of the game’s most talented offensive players in Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Anthony Rizzo. And Addison Russell, Ben Zobrist and Ian Happ aren’t exactly slouches. The pitching has some big names as well – Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Cole Hamels, Jose Quintana. It’s a hell of a group; one whose placement in third is indicative of just how good this division has gotten in the last couple of years. The best thing you can say about the Reds is that they probably won’t be as bad as they’ve been over the past few years. They still have Joey Votto, who is one of my favorite MLB players and is still a premier craftsman with the bat. Guys like Eugenio Suarez and Scooter Gennett are fun. But the pitching has been abysmal. It might improve somewhat with the addition of arms like Sonny Gray, but the reality is that Cincinnati simply hasn’t been able to produce pitching talent. their young guns can’t step up, the Reds will have the blues in 2019. The Pirates have even less to offer than the Reds. Pittsburgh’s got a pretty good outfield nucleus in Gregory Polanco, Starling Marte and Corey Dickerson … and that’s about it. Their catching is OK and their infield is awful. The pitching staff is decent, but unexciting. In a good division, that’s a recipe for last place.

NL West

Los Angeles Dodgers – x

Colorado Rockies

San Diego Padres

Arizona Diamondbacks

San Francisco Giants

I’d love to talk myself into a different team, but it’s simple: Until the Dodgers lose the division, I can’t pick against them. They’ve won the NL West six years in a row, so why pick against number seven? Clayton Kershaw isn’t what he once was, so now he’s only one of the league’s best pitchers instead of THE best. Corey Seager and Clay Bellinger and Justin Turner and Max Muncy … the list of talented hitters goes on and on. Los Angeles is also one of the most positionally flexible teams. Their bullpen doesn’t look quite as shiny, but there are some good arms there. The rotation’s got Walker Buehler and Rich Hill and more. The Dodgers will fail to win the West eventually, but we’re not there yet. The Rockies have a strong case as a contender, but not for the reasons that we’ve traditionally expected from Colorado. The starting rotation – led by Kyle Freeland and featuring a wealth of homegrown talent – has become a strength like never before in franchise history. There are some killer offensive guys – Trevor Story is an elite shortstop and Nolan Arenado is one of MLB’s best players period. However, the offense as a whole hasn’t been as impressive as we’ve seen in the past from Coors Field teams. Don’t be surprised if this team makes waves. The Padres are on the rise, something that hasn’t been said for a decade or more in San Diego. The big news was the massive signing of Manny Machado, of course, but the Padres have some great offensive pieces in guys like Wil Myers and Hunter Refroe. Plus, elite prospects Fernando Tatis Jr. and Francisco Meija are on the cusp. Granted, the pitching is largely ineffective, with the only real hope being that some of the system’s young arms arrive ahead of schedule. Even so, it has been awhile since we’ve seen this kind of optimism in San Diego. The Diamondbacks had a good season last year, but a significant number of key contributors are gone. Patrick Corbin and A.J. Pollack left in free agency, while they traded Paul Goldschmidt to the Cardinals. Zack Greinke leads a still-strong starting rotation, but even a talented staff will struggle to win with an offense that threatens to be subpar. It wouldn’t shock me to see the Diamondbacks land in the cellar. But I think that’s where the Giants wind up. San Francisco has committed to rebuilding. Their offense has been less than stellar, with only Buster Posey and Brandon Belt producing anything like above-average output. A number of veterans are aging none too gracefully and the pitching staff is packed with injury risks. All in all, it looks like it could be some time before the Giants are back.

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