NBA Game Ball 11/9: Kyrie Irving brings the Celtics back from the depths

Welcome to a (hopefully) daily feature here at Sports and Stuff titled Game Ball, where I pick a particular performance from the previous night and briefly analyze it.

Coming into the season, the Boston Celtics were pegged as heavy favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. After all, this is a team stacked with talent, and with Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward returning from their respective injuries and LeBron James taking his talents out west, the Celtics seemed like a lock to win the conference.

So far, the Celtics have struggled to keep up with those projections. They’ve been fine overall, but that’s because of their stout defense more than anything — which is ranked first in points allowed per 100 possessions. The offense, on the other hand, has been tough to watch, to say the least; they came into Thursday ranked 27th in offensive rating.

Boston’s ineptitude was on full display during the first quarter of Thursday’s game against the Phoenix Suns. Boston made a team that came into the game ranked 27th in defensive rating look like one of best defenses in the league. After an Irving three gave Boston the early lead, they went over six minutes without making a basket, ultimately getting outscored 32-13 in the opening quarter.

Boston eventually got going, using a 35-20 fourth quarter to tie the game and send it to overtime, where they outpaced Phoenix 16-5 to come away with the win.

Irving overall had a great game; he finished with 39 points, seven rebounds, six assists, and the team was +7 when he was on the floor. His biggest play came on the final possession in regulation, when he made a tremendous pass in-between Isaiah Canaan and Devin Booker, who double-teamed him on the wing, to Marcus Morris for the game-tying trey:

https://streamable.com/4g9yw

Irving would jumpstart the offense in the extra frame with three straight layups. After Booker tied the game with lay-up of his own, Irving again took advantage of an aggressive Phoenix D with a good pass to an open Al Horford at the top of the key for the go-ahead triple:

https://streamable.com/f5sjy

It’s true that no one will confuse Irving for Chris Paul. And there it’s reasonable to question whether Irving is even Boston’s best player (the Celtics are a much better team when Irving goes to the bench, based on his on/off numbers). But There’s no question that the Celtics will need Irving’s timely passing as well as much as his shot-creating ability if the Celtics want to become the contenders that everyone assumes they are.

 

 

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NBA Game Ball 11/8: Anthony Davis

Welcome to a (hopefully) daily feature here at Sports and Stuff titled Game Ball, where I pick a particular performance and briefly analyze it.

To say that the New Orleans Pelicans will go as far as Anthony Davis will take them is 1.) a trite cliche and 2.) only half true. Yes, the Davis can probably will the Pelicans to the playoffs, even in a rugged Western Conference. But to hang with the true powers of the NBA (i.e, the Golden State Warriors), the Pelicans need more than just Davis.

Against the tanking Chicago Bulls, however, Davis is more than enough. In New Orleans’ 107-98 win over the Bulls on Nov. 7, Davis put forth a monster 32 point, 15 rebound, seven assist performance. There were many highlights. Like this slick pass to a cutting Nikola Mirotic:

https://streamable.com/777b7

Or this dunk that came after running the break and setting up a pick and roll with Tim Frazier:

https://streamable.com/at39y

Or this drive to the basket that set up and and-one opportunity:

https://streamable.com/51boo

Davis also made half of his four 3-point attempts, which simply isn’t fair. The Bulls defenders were hesitant to play Davis close on the perimeter for fear of giving up and easy two points, so if Davis is out here draining treys, he will be almost impossible to stop for most teams.

After a few DNP’s and some mundane (for him) games within a six-game losing streak, Davis and the Pelicans needed a game like this against a lesser opponent to get back on track. Of course, it helps that they were playing one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA, but Davis and the Pelicans did what they were supposed to do against a substandard club.

New Orleans is very much a lottery team without Davis so he will need to have more games like this against teams like the Bulls for the Pelicans to get where they believe Davis can take them.

Don’t be fooled by Zach LaVine’s early-season scoring totals

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Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

When the Chicago Bulls decided to match the Sacramento Kings’ four-year, $78 million offer sheet for uber-athletic guard Zach LaVine this offseason, many fans and bloggers felt it was a significant overpay for a player that would not live up to the contract. After all, LaVine had only put up modest numbers up to that point with the Bulls and Minnesota Timberwolves, and that’s before you take the torn ACL he suffered in Feb. 2017. The apprehension was understandable. But through 11 games, LaVine has at least looked like a player that’s deserving of the large price tag attributed to him.

Following a monster performance against the New York Knicks on Monday Night, where he scored 41 points on 13-for-25 shooting, LaVine is now averaging a career-high 27.9 points per game with a healthy .474/.351/.846 shooting line. This explosion was far from an aberration too; his performance against the Knicks was the fifth game in which LaVine scored at least 30 points. Naturally, this has led some people to claim that LaVine has “arrived” and is “putting the NBA on notice”. These folks may need to slow down just a bit.

Yes, LaVine is flashing the scoring prowess that many, this author included, thought he had. And yes, his scoring output has increased, but that tends to happen when you have the third highest usage rate in the league — as of Nov. 6. Injuries to Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn have made LaVine the primary option on offense and, at least on the surface level, it has worked out. Doing stuff like this also helps his case:

https://streamable.com/boe0v/

However, all the pull-up threes, crossovers, and jams haven’t translated to any wins. Some of that is simply the result of playing on a bad — and short-handed — team. I mean, LaVine can’t make guys who have apparently had their fingers replaced with sticks of warm butter:

https://streamable.com/zcfdw

But LaVine is part of the problem too, despite what his flashy counting stats say. Let’s start with the first red flag: his propensity to turn the ball over. As of Nov. 6, only Giannis Antetokounmpo is averaging more giveaways than LaVine. In the aforementioned 41-point outing against the Knicks, LaVine finished with eight turnovers. He already has four games in which he finished with at least five.

Worse yet, LaVine isn’t offsetting his miscues by creating for his teammates. Among backcourt players, only Jordan Clarkson and Allonzo Trier have a lower assist-to-turnover ratio than the Chicago guard (min. seven games and 20 minutes per game) as of Nov. 6.

Combine that with his still-suspect defense — he is one of the worst pick and roll defenders in the league thus far and has a -2.1 defensive box plus/minus — and it leaves a lot of room for skepticism. It also doesn’t help that the team plays exponentially better when LaVine is off the floor; as of Nov. 6, the Bulls net rating jumps from -9.5 to +1.6 when LaVine goes to the bench. Even more jarring, Chicago scores 8.5 more points per 100 possessions when LaVine sits. Who would have guessed that a high-volume shooting guard that turns the ball over all the time, never passes the ball, and doesn’t play good defense doesn’t make the team better?

Look, the Bulls aren’t very good. Even if they had Markkanen and/or Dunn available, this looks like a team that will once again be picking from a lottery spot and hoping that one of next offseason’s star free agents finds their collection of talent intriguing enough to sign with them. LaVine could average 50 points per game and it still wouldn’t make the Bulls a playoff team.

LaVine has had a nice start to the season. His play, along with Markkanen and Dunn’s performances last year and the Timberwolves disintegrating before our eyes, has made the Bulls look smart for trading away Jimmy Butler in 2017, which is a feat in and of itself.

But let’s not get carried away with the gaudy box score numbers. LaVine is a player that’s better suited to be a heat check sixth man or good third option on a playoff team. If the Bulls can find a superstar or two in the near future, having a tertiary scoring threat that can drop 40 on any given night and average more than 20 per game, will make that not-so-bad contract look a whole lot better.

Quick 2018 NFL Predictions: NFC

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Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images North America

With the 2018 NFL season set to begin tonight, here are some quick predictions for each conference, going by division, now focusing on the NFC.

Of all the teams and all the quarterbacks, who would have thought that the Nick Foles-led Philadelphia Eagles would have outdueled the mighty New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII. If you had the Eagles making the Super Bowl last year, let alone winning it, then you should open a fortune telling shop and rake in the cash.

With a stacked roster and breakout star quarterback Carson Wentz expected back at some point this year, the Eagles are one of the favorites to reach Super Bown LIII as the NFC representative. However, this isn’t the AFC, where the Patriots basically have an E-Z Pass to the conference title. The elder conference houses several strong championship contenders that will give Philly a run for their money.

Who will come out of this rugged NFC to reach “The Big Game”? Who knows, but it will be fun to predict who could.

NFC North: He’s back! Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has a clean bill of health and a shiny new contract extension, which spells trouble for the rest of the division. The Pack will need the former league MVP at his best to win the division, as their defense (20th in defensive DVOA) wasn’t nearly good enough to keep them in the playoff hunt when Rodgers went down. With a loaded roster and a new quarterback, the Minnesota Vikings have a great chance to repeat as division champs, but a shaky offensive line could be their undoing. The Detroit Lions will do what they always do: gain a ton of yards, put up some points, struggle to run the ball, and lose a couple of close games. Watch out for the Bears though. They have a sneaky good roster — that just improved with the addition of Khalil Mack — so don’t be surprised if they win more games than you think. Ultimately, I think that Green Bay will get a full season of Rodgers and will retake the north crown.

Standings: Packers (10-6, wins Super Bowl), Vikings (10-6, loses in Wild Card round), Lions (8-8), Bears (6-10)

NFC South: There’s a good chance that this division won’t produce three playoff teams again. The Atlanta Falcons and the Carolina Panthers seem like the likeliest candidates to regress since they both slightly outperformed their Pythagorean projections (Carolina had 9.0 expected wins, Atlanta had 9.1). Both of those teams will remain in the hunt, but they probably won’t have the same amount of luck in close games — Carolina was 8-1 in games decided by eight points or less, Atlanta was 6-3. The New Orleans Saints seem like a safe bet to repeat as division champs. Their offense, led by Drew Brees and Alvin Kamara, will put up a ton of points and the defense is respectable enough to take some of the onus off of that group. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were probably going to finish last even if Jameis Winston hadn’t gotten suspended for groping an Uber driver. Now it’s basically a guarantee.

Standings: Saints (11-5, loses in the Divisional round), Falcons (9-7), Panthers (8-8), Bucs (4-12)

NFC East: The Eagles are the best team in this division –and will get even better when Wentz returns. However, don’t sleep on the Dallas Cowboys. Even though many people hope that they go 0-16, including this writer, they looked like a playoff team before injuries and Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension did them in. With Odell Beckham returning and the addition of Saquon Barkley, the New York Giants could also bounce back after a dismal 2017. After trading for Alex Smith, Washington has some stability at the quarterback position. They will hang around in the playoff hunt, but the quality of teams in the NFC will keep them on the outside looking in.

Standings: Eagles (12-4, loses in the Divisional round), Cowboys (9-7, loses in Wild Card round), Washington (7-9), Giants (5-11)

NFC West: There has been a changing of the guard out West. The Los Angeles Rams emerged as a surprise playoff team last year and are once again the favorites to win the division with the additions of Ndamukong Suh, Brandin Cooks, Marcus Peters, and Aquib Talib. The Seattle Seahawks barely resemble the team that went to consecutive Super Bowls in the 2013-14 seasons — especially in the secondary — but with Russell Wilson under center, they still have enough to compete for a Wild Card spot. Speaking of quarterbacks, the San Francisco 49ers hope that Jimmy Garoppolo replicates last year’s success over a full season. There will be some regression to the mean, but the Niners will surprise some people this year. The Arizona Cardinals went 8-8 last year, but they got a boost from their 6-1 record in games decided by eight or fewer points. They’re a prime candidate for regression, especially when Josh Rosen inevitably starts after Sam Bradford gets injured.

Standings: Rams (11-5, loses in the Conference Title game), Seahawks (9-7), 49ers (7-9), Cardinals (3-13)

Quick 2018 NFL Predictions: AFC

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Photo: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images North America

With the 2018 NFL season set to begin on Thursday, here are some quick predictions for each conference, going by division, starting with the AFC.

Last year, many fans expected the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots to meet once again in the AFC Championship Game. Well, those people got it half-right; the Pats indeed reached yet another title game, but they had to contend with the upstart Jacksonville Jaguars to clinch their third conference crown in four years. Of course, we all know what happened to them in Super Bowl LII: their defense got exposed by NICK FOLES of all people:

New England is once again the odds-on favorite to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LIII, but could another team step up and snatch that honor away from Tom Brady and company? We won’t have the definitive answer until January, but that’s too far away. Let’s make some quick predictions NOW!

AFC North: Even with Le’Veon Bell holding out, the Steelers are still the favorites to win the division. They ranked in the top 10 in passing, rushing, pass defensive, overall defensive and overall offensive Defense-adjusted Value Over Replacement (DVOA) and most of their stellar roster remains intact. Of course, there were points where Ben Roethlisberger showed his age last year. He’s 36 and has taken a lot of punishment over the years, so perhaps this is the season where Big Ben begins to decline.

As for the other teams in the north, the Ravens have enough talent to earn a wild-card bid this year, as long as the defense and the running game are steady. I’m long past the point of expecting Joe Flacco to do anything other than toss short passes to the tight ends. Cincinnati will probably win between 6-8 games in the most uninteresting fashion possible. The Browns will be an interesting team to watch. Yes, they went 0-16 last year, but they have a competent quarterback in Tyrod Taylor as well as an interesting young roster. They’ll still finish in the cellar, but they won’t be a complete laughingstock.

Standings: Steelers (10-6, loses in Divisional Round), Ravens (9-7, loses in Divisional Round), Bengals (7-9), Browns (4-12)

AFC South: This division isn’t the joke that it was a couple of seasons ago. The Jaguars are good now, even if their quarterback still isn’t. They are still the best team in the division, although they won’t take anybody by surprise this year. They also won’t have the luxury of their divisional foes trotting out lifeless mannequins to play quarterback. In Indianapolis, the Colts hope that Andrew Luck is healthy enough to carry their lackluster roster back to the playoffs. The Texans hope that DeShaun Watson and J.J. Watt has the same effect. Tennessee hopes that new head coach Mike Vrabel and offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur (who was the L.A. Rams OC last year, though he wasn’t the playcaller) will help quarterback Marcus Mariota in his progression. If they can, the Titans could legitimately challenge Jacksonville for the division.

Standings: Jaguars (10-6, loses in wild card), Colts (9-7, loses in wild card), Titans (8-8), Texans (7-9)

AFC East: The Patriots are winning this division (sigh). Unless Tom Brady disintegrates before our eyes, all of the other teams in this putrid division are playing for second place (or more realistically, a top draft pick). The Bills will start Nathan Peterman at QB (yuck), which is a clear sign that they intend to tank this season. That philosophy won’t change if they pull him for Josh Allen (who will fit right in with Buffalo). Sam Darnold looks like the real deal for the Jets, but they aren’t anywhere close to being ready to compete for a playoff spot. The Dolphins elicit a “meh” response from me. They could earn a wild-card spot, they could go 4-12. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter since we all know the Pats are winning the east, again.

Standings: Patriots (12-4, loses Super Bowl), Dolphins (6-10), Jets (3-13), Bills (3-13)

AFC West: In a division that’s a bit more wide open than it was last year, the L.A. Chargers seem like a good bet to take the division this year. They are loaded with talent, have the best quarterback in the division in Phillip Rivers, and they stand to progress to the mean after suffering some bad luck in close games last year (10.4 expected wins last year). Behind the Chargers sit three talented teams that have glaring weaknesses. For the Chiefs and the Broncos, it’s the quarterback position. For Oakland, it’s their defense, which got considerably weaker after trading Khalil Mack to Chicago. With those teams projected to take a step back this year, that gives the Chargers a great chance to return to the postseason.

Standings: Chargers (10-6, loses in conference title game), Chiefs (8-8), Broncos (6-10), Raiders (6-10)

 

MLB Season Preview 2018: National League West

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Ezra Shaw/Getty Images North America

With Opening Day fast approaching, I will take a look at each of the American and National League Divisions, analyzing why each team could win the division and why they might not. Today, I will break down the National League West.

Arizona Diamondbacks

2017 Record: 93-69, 2nd place (lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS)

Why they could win the division: Arizona still has many of the same pieces from last year’s surprising playoff team. First Baseman Paul Goldschmidt is still around to terrorize opposing pitchers. He’ll see plenty of strikes batting in front of young slugger Jake Lamb (30 homers in 2017). A.J. Pollack and the newly-acquired Jarrod Dyson will balance out the lineup with some speed, not that Arizona had problems in that department (seventh in steals last year). Regarding the rotation, the D-Backs’ starting five remains intact. Considering they ranked third in starters ERA last year, that’s a good thing. There’s enough talent here for the D-Backs to make another playoff run.

Why they might not win: The D-Backs ranked in the top 10 in runs and OPS last year, but they could struggle to repeat that success without J.D. Martinez. The newly minted Boston Red Sox DH played just 62 games in the desert, but his 1.107 OPS was a key factor in Arizona returning to the playoffs. Fast as Dyson is, I don’t think he’ll come close to matching that level of production. Their top-five bullpen also went through some changes, losing closer Fernando Rodney (Minnesota) and setup man David Hernandez (Cincinnati). Brad Boxberger, Fernando Salas, and Japanese signing Yoshihisa Hirano will replace, but can this trio replace their production? Arizona also has to hope that starters Robbie Ray (2.89 ERA, 3.72 FIP) and Taijuan Walker (3.49 ERA, 4.04 FIP) don’t regress to the mean. If the hitting and pitching regress, it could spell trouble for Arizona.

Final Record: 82-80, 2nd

Colorado Rockies

2017 Record: 87-75, 3rd place (lost to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Wild Card Game)

Why they could win the division: The Rockies offense was awesome last year. They finished in the top five in batting average, on-base percentage, OPS, and runs. Of course, Colorado hit much better within the friendly confines of Coors Field (.862 OPS at home compared to .703 on the road), but they didn’t rely as much on the long ball as people would assume (21st in MLB last year). Most of the 2017 lineup returns for another go (only Jonathan Lucroy, a rental, departed), so there’s no reason to expect anything less than top-tier production in 2018. The pitching, always a question mark for Colorado, was good enough last year (16th in starters ERA) to lift the Rockies into the postseason. If they can repeat their relative success, the Rockies could be dangerous once again.

Why they might not win: Because of where they play, Colorado will always struggle with consistent pitching. Their home/road splits are alarming; pitching to a 4.93 ERA at home compared to 4.09 everywhere else. The bullpen struggled especially–Colorado ranked 20th in relievers ERA last year, but new closer Wade Davis should lower that number. How many save chances will he get if the starters and middle relievers can’t hold leads. If the offense slips even a smidge in 2018, the pitching may not be good enough to make up the difference.

Final Record: 81-81, 3rd

Los Angeles Dodgers

2017 Record: 104-58, 1st place (lost to the Houston Astros in the World Series)

Why they could win: Even with some losses, the Dodgers are still stacked from top to bottom. Their lineup is still littered with young talent, and their rotation still looks pretty good. They still have arguably the best young player in the game (Cory Seager). They still have the best pitcher in the game (Clayton Kershaw). They still have arguably the most dominant closer in the game (Kenley Jansen). Los Angeles should win the division again, but their real test will come in October, where they always seem to fall short.

Why they might not win: The talent in the NL West means that the Dodgers have less room for error than they did a season ago. Still, it would take some injuries and some players underachieving to open the door for the other teams (L.A. has already lost Justin Turner and Julio Urias for an extended period of time). The improvements of the other west teams have loosened the Dodgers’ grip on the division.

Final Record95-67, 1st (eliminated in NLCS)

San Diego Padres

2017 Record: 71-91, 4th place

Why they could win the division: 

Why they might not win: This was one of the worst offenses in baseball. In fact, the Padres were the least productive team in MLB in terms of runs last year. The return of Chase Headley and the signing of Eric Hosmer won’t change that much. The pitching–23rd in starters ERA and 24th in relievers ERA–wasn’t much better. San Diego didn’t make many changes here either, so I expect the same lack of production. With their prospects still a couple of years away from call-ups, Padres fans should expect to see plenty of losses.

Final Record: 69-93, 5th

San Fransisco Giants

2017 Record: 64-98, 5th place

Why they could win the division: On paper, the Giants offense looks pretty good. Not only are they going to get full-season production from Buster Posey and Bandon Belt, but they will also get a boost from new stars Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria. The rotation should be fine once Madison Bumgarner and Jeff Samardzija return from the DL. The back end of the bullpen, headlined by Mark Melancon and Tony Watson, looks pretty reliable as well. If all goes well, San Francisco appears primed for a rebound.

Why they might not win: With this roster, San Francisco would’ve been a legit World Series contender…in 2012. They’re banking on a lot of veterans to find their former form, which could end in disaster. The offense should improve on its 29th ranked run scoring total from 2017, but will it be enough to buttress the pitching. The Bumgarner, Samardzija, and Melancon (questionable for Opening Day) injuries will put the Giants behind the eight-ball a little bit. That lost time could prove the difference between the Giants playing into October or not.

Final Record: 80-82, 4th

 

MLB Season Preview 2018: National League Central

 

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Norm Hall/Getty Images North America

With Opening Day fast approaching, I will take a look at each of the American and National League Divisions, analyzing why each team could win the division and why they might not. Today, I will break down the National League Central.

Chicago Cubs

2017 Record: 92-70, 1st place (lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLCS)

Why they could win the division: For the fourth consecutive season, the Cubs are the odds-on favorite to win the NL Central. One look at their roster and it’s not hard to see why. Their lineup is loaded with phenomenal young talent like. Former NL MVP Kris Bryant and first baseman Anthony Rizzo anchor an offense that ranked fourth in runs and sixth in OPS. Those two will get plenty of strikes with Kyle Schwarber (30 homers last year), Willson Contreras (.855 OPS last year), and young centerfielder Ian Happ (24 homers in 115 games last year). The pitching staff lost a couple of pieces–Jake Arietta from the rotation and Wade Davis from the bullpen–but they made up for it with the additions of Brandon Morrow (2.06 ERA), Steve Cishek (2.01 ERA with Seattle and Tampa Bay), and Yu Darvish (3.86 ERA). Factor in the strong defense eighth in DRS last year) and the Cubbies should win the Central again.

Why they might not win: The other teams would have to hope that Chicago struggles out of the gate like they did last year to give them a chance to win. That could open the door for teams like the Brewers and the Cardinals to swipe the division away from them. If the offense relies too heavily on Bryant and Rizzo and if Morrow struggles to adjust to the closer role, that could make the northsiders vulnerable.

Final Record: 95-67, 1st (loses World Series)

Cincinnati Reds

2017 Record: 68-94, 5th place

Why they could win the division: Check back in a couple of years.

Why they might not win: The Reds were an okay offensive team last year (thanks to the efforts of Joey Votto), but they weren’t good enough to make up for their ghastly pitching staff (29th in starters ERA, 27th in relievers ERA). Their lineup and pitching staff are primarily made up of inexperienced young guys who don’t project to break out just yet. That’s all I can really say about a team in which I only recognize three names from their most recent string of playoff appearances (Votto, Billy Hamilton, and Homer Bailey). They just aren’t good enough for me to care.

Final Record: 70-92, 5th place

Milwaukee Brewers

2017 Record: 86-76, 2nd place

Why they could win the division: The Brewers surprised a lot of people last year; staying in the playoff race most of the year when many thought they would struggle. This year’s outfit is arguably better. They acquired outfielder Christian Yelich from the dumpster fire that is the Miami Marlins and signed former Kansas City Royal Lorenzo Cain to man the outfield with former NL MVP Ryan Braun. They will join breakout star Travis Shaw (.862 OPS in 2017) to form one of the most powerful lineups in baseball. The rotation isn’t as star-studded as some of the marquee teams, but this is the same group that ranked 10th in starters ERA and eighth in bullpen ERA. Milwaukee has enough to compete for a playoff spot…

Why they might not win: …but they may not have enough to compete with the Cubs. Although they hit a lot of homers (seventh in MLB last year), the Brewers struggled to consistently reach base (17th in OBP), and score (20th in runs). They could struggle to score if the ball doesn’t leave the yard. Their bullpen also had a knack for giving away free passes (highest BB/9 in baseball last year). If these trends continue, Milwaukee could once again fall short of the postseason, especially with the Cardinals much improved.

Final Record: 81-81, 3rd

Pittsburgh Pirates

2017 Record: 75-87, 4th place

Why they could win the division: Yeah…they’re not winning the division.

Why they won’t win: The Pirates finished 28th in runs and 29th in OPS last year. They don’t get on base. They don’t hit for power. They just aren’t that good. The pitching has also taken a step back with the loss of Gerrit Cole. It’s still okay, but it isn’t good enough to make up for their lack of offense. The Bucs had a nice run, but it looks like they’ll enter another rebuilding phase soon.

Final Record: 73-89, 4th

St. Louis Cardinals

2017 Record: 83-79, 3rd place

Why they could win the division: Despite the ho-hum (by their standards) record, the Cards weren’t really terrible at anything last year. Their offense was productive (13th in runs, 12th in OPS), their pitching was good (11th in starters ERA, seventh in bullpen ERA), and the defense was great (fifth in DRS). St. Louis didn’t need to upgrade the team that much (they has 87 Pythagorean wins in 2017), but they did so with the acquisition of Marcell Ozuna from the pits of hell Miami Marlins. While the Cards lost Lance Lynn, but they still have quality arms like Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha leading the rotation. St. Louis is probably in the best position to challenge their rival Cubs for the NL Central crown.

Why they might not win: St. Louis is better, but they still feel a player or two short of snatching the Central title. They’re replacing Lynn with journeyman Miles Mikolas, who spent last year playing in Japan. His numbers in the states aren’t particularly impressive (career 5.32 ERA). Of course, he is probably a placeholder for the injured Adam Wainwright, but I doubt he returns to his former ace form (4.81 ERA over the last two seasons). They also don’t have a clear closer in the bullpen, which could create some issues early on. This team is good, but that might only get them to the wild card.

Final Record: 86-76, 2nd (eliminated in the NLDS)