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

 

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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)

MLB Season Preview 2018: National League East

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Jonathan Daniel/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 East.

Atlanta Braves

2017 Record: 72-90, 3rd place (seriously).

Why they could win the division: (Looks up 2017 Braves roster). Yep, still rebuilding.

Why they might not win: The Braves had a tumultuous offseason as far as the front office was concerned. General Manager John Coppolella resigned and was later given a lifetime MLB ban for his role in the team’s international signing infractions. Not long after, President of Baseball Operations John Hart also stepped down. Those two are out and former Toronto Blue Jays General Manager Alex Anthopoulos is in. On the field, there still isn’t much to get excited about. They have a couple of good, young pieces (Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, the impending arrival of Ronald Acuna), but this is the same lineup that ranked 20th in runs and 21st in OPS last year. Julio Tehran still headlines a Braves rotation that finished 21st in ERA. Brandon McCarthy should help, but he won’t single-handedly transform this staff into a top-flight group. Atlanta has a long way to go.

Final Record: 71-91, 4th place

Miami Marlins

2017 Record: 77-85, 2nd place

Why they could win the division: 

Why they won’t might not win: Man, where do I start? This is basically a minor league team playing in a major league park. Only one hitter–Justin Bour–projects to hit 30 home runs. In fact, Miami has just five hitters that project to hit more than 10. They don’t have the requisite speed and situational hitters to make up for the lack of power. Their rotation and bullpen are a collection of “AAAA” guys (players that are too good for the minors but not good enough for the majors). To make matters worse, their best players (Wei-Yin Chen, J.T. Realmuto, and Dan Straily) will start the year on the Disabled List. The team won’t get a reprieve from the farm system, as none of those players are expected to contribute this year. Derek Jeter and company dug a massive hole for this team, and it’s going to take a LONG time to dig out of it.

Final Record: 61-101 (and that’s probably a generous prediction), 5th

New York Mets

2017 Record: 70-92, 4th place

Why they could win the division: The Mets have the most talent to challenge Washington for the division crown. If Steven Matz, Noah Syndergaard, and *gulp* Matt Harvey stay healthy, New York could once again have one of the best rotations in baseball. Even with injuries, New York had the 15th most productive starting staff in MLB in terms of WAR. If the rotation remains intact, the Mets’ flawed but powerful trio of Yoenis Cespedes, Todd Frazier, and Jay Bruce should produce enough offense for the Mets to return to the playoffs.

Why they might not win: New York’s talented group of starters may never reach the peaks that most fans expected several years ago. Whether it’s due to health, ineffectiveness, or both, something always holds them back. Harvey looked awful last year (6.70 ERA, 6.37 FIP) and may never regain his All-Star form. Matz didn’t look much better (6.08 ERA, 5.05 FIP). They also had one of the most overworked and least productive bullpens in baseball last year (ninth in innings, 29th in ERA). Even if both groups improve to post league average numbers, that likely won’t be enough to balance out the Mets’ lackluster offense (18th in runs in 2017). If the Mets struggle again in 2018, it will be because the pitching once again lets them down.

Final Record: 83-79, 2nd (wild card, eliminated in the wild-card game)

Philadelphia Phillies

2017 Record: 66-96, 5th place

Why they could win the division: They’re getting better. The Phillies have an interesting mix of young talent and veterans. They signed first basemen Carlos Santana (not this guy) to boost the teams’ power and on-base percentage and they still have young studs like Odubel Herrera and Maikel Franko. If top prospects Jorge Alfaro and J.P. Crawford make a splash immediately, Philly could surprise some people. As for pitching, the Phillies added former Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta to a fairly reasonable contract a couple of weeks ago. He and young star Aaron Nola (3.54 ERA, 3.27 FIP) should lift up what was a dismal rotation (21st in ERA) last year. This team will shock some people.

Why they might not: While they’re better, Philadelphia isn’t quite ready to challenge for the division. The offense doesn’t have a lot of speed nor does it have an abundance of guys that regularly reach base. Those could be issues for a team that also struggles to hit for power (25th in slugging percentage last year). The rotation past Arrieta and Nola looks fairly mediocre–Nola was the only pitcher with an ERA under 4.00 last year. The Phillies will be better than they were in 2017, but they will still struggle with inconsistency.

Final Record: 76-86, 3rd

Washington Nationals

2017 Record: 97-65, 1st place (lost to the Chicago Cubs in the NLDS)

Why they could win the division: Washington is still the class of the NL East. Even when injuries ravaged their lineup and pitching staff, the Nationals still coasted to their second straight divisional title. Looking at this year’s roster, there’s nothing to suggest that the Nats won’t win another NL East title. Their lineup has the perfect balance of speed (Trea Turner and the returning Adam Eaton), power (Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon and the resurgent Ryan Zimmerman) and plate discipline (ninth in OBP last year). Their rotation (4th in ERA last year) still houses Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg,  and a resurrected Gio Gonzalez. Washington made no changes to their bullpen, but they didn’t need to. Although they ranked 23rd overall last year, the mid-season acquisitions of Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson, and Brandon Kintzler helped Washington post the seventh-best relievers ERA in the second half. This should win the division, but the real questions will start once the calendar flips to October.

Why they might not win: I would say that only injuries could cost the Nats the NL East, but we all saw what they did last year despite having multiple stars on the DL. So, I’ll slightly amend it; injuries and the health of the other teams in the division (not the Marlins, LOL) could do the Nats in. They are that much more talented than the other NL East teams. Another thing that could slow them down is the weight of expectations. This team has a history of underperforming when most people expect the most from them (2013, 2015). That’s the only thing that realistically opens the door for the other clubs (except the Marlins, LOL).

Final Record: 94-68, 1st (eliminated in the NLCS)

MLB Season Preview 2018: American League West

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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 American League West.

Houston Astros

2017 Record: 101-61, 1st place (won the World Series)

Why they will could win the division: Talent-wise, the defending World Series Champions are still head and shoulders above the rest of the AL West. Their top scoring offense remains mostly intact; the only major piece they lost was Carlos Beltran, who retired last November. The Astros’ lineup is filled with dynamic players like AL MVP Jose Altuve, George Springer, and Carlos Correa. Houston also improved their stellar rotation with the addition of former Pittsburgh Pirate Gerrit Cole. He joins former Cy Young Award winners Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel along with veteran Charlie Morton and young upstart Lance McCullers to form a stingy quintet. The front office also brought in submariner Joe Smith and flamethrower Hector Rondon to fortify the bullpen. This team has a great chance to return to the World Series and are almost a lock to repeat as division champs.

Why they might not: There isn’t much to suggest that the Astros won’t repeat as division champions. The one question mark would probably be the bullpen (16th in relievers ERA in 2017). I also doubt that Verlander will replicate his 1.95 second-half ERA for an entire season. If Verlander regresses and Keuchel pitches like he did in the second half (4.24 ERA), then the Astros might be in a little trouble. If this team struggles, it will be because of the pitching, but even that seems like a stretch.

Final Record: 97-65, 1st (eliminated in the ALDS)

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

2017 Record: 80-82, 2nd place

Why they could win the division: Los Angeles (of Anaheim) still has the best baseball player in the world, Mike Trout, on their roster. That’s always a good starting point for any team. Besides Trout, the Angels boast an interesting lineup with some pop. They’ll have a full season of Justin Upton after trading for him at last August. As far as this offseason is concerned, the team signed Japanese pitcher/designated hitter Shohei Ohtani. Known for his ability to miss bats (10.3 career K/9) and his home run power (he hit 22 homers in 2016) in Japan, Ohtani should at the very least prop up an L.A. rotation that wasn’t too bad last year (12th in starters ERA). The Angels will also get a full season of Garrett Richards (2.28 ERA in 27.2 innings last year), further bolstering their starting pitching. Combine that with Trout’s presence, and the Angels have enough to compete out west.

Why they might not: Outside of Richards and Ohtani, who are question marks themselves, the Angels’ pitching situation looks shaky. Their other starters project to finish the year with an ERA above 4.00. Their bullpen also got weaker; they replaced Fernando Salas (2.63 ERA) and Yusmeiro Petit (2.76 ERA) with Jim Johnson (5.56 ERA with Atlanta) and Luke Bard (Rule Five pick). The pitching could cost the Angels the division, wasting yet another year of Trout’s prime.

Final Record: 84-78, 2nd (wild card, eliminated in the Wild Card Game)

Oakland Athletics

2017 Record: 75-87, 5th place

Why they could win the division: General Manager Billy Beane shrewdly improved Oakland’s middling offense with the additions of catcher Jonathan Lucroy and Steven Piscotty. With those two joining Khris Davis (43 HR’s last year) and young boppers Matt Olson (34 projected HR’s in 2018) and Matt Chapman (24 HR’s in 59 games) A’s will have little trouble clearing the fences despite playing half of their games in the cavernous Oakland Coliseum. If the other hitters can get on base for the power threats (20th in OBP last year) and if the pitching improves, Oakland could find themselves back in the mix.

Why they might not: The Oakland rotation, which ranked 20th in ERA, features the same arms that struggled for most of 2017. Maybe some of the youngsters will pitch better, but I don’t expect any of them to blossom into staff aces. Good thing Oakland brought in Yusmeiro Petit, Ryan Buchter (2.89 ERA last year) and Emilio Pagan (3.22 ERA) to bolster the bullpen because they might see plenty of action. If the pitching can’t hold up, then it won’t matter how many home runs the A’s hit.

Final Record: 76-86, 5th

Seattle Mariners

2017 Record: 78-84, tied for third

Why they could win the division: The top-heavy Mariners added to their collection of talent when they traded for Miami Marlins second baseman Dee Gordon. The speedy son of Tom “Flash” Gordon will try his hand at centerfield this year (Robinson Cano is still at second). More importantly, Gordon brings some flair to the top of Seattle’s order in a way not seen since Ichiro Suzuki. Speaking of Ichiro, the future Hall-of-Famer returns to the city where he made his name. At 44, he obviously won’t play everyday, but it will still be cool to see him in an M’s uni again. Seattle still has one of the most feared trios in Cano, Nelson Cruz, and Kyle Seager. Their decent bullpen and rotation are still intact as well. Seattle is more than talented enough to compete for the division crown.

Why they might not: The Mariners always look good on paper and they always fall short of their lofty expectations. Cano isn’t the player he once was. Neither is former Cy Yong winner Felix Hernandez. Outside of James Paxton, the starters are pretty mediocre. Seattle is like the AL West version of the Toronto Blue Jays: good, but not great. Good won’t be enough to usurp the Astros.

Final Record: 83-78, 3rd

Texas Rangers

2017 Record: 78-84, tied for 3rd

Why they could win the division: The Rangers had no problem scoring in 2017, ranking ninth in runs and third in homers. Adrian Beltre continues to defy father time and put up monster numbers (.915 OPS). The rest of the offense features a good mix of power (Nomar Mazara, Joey Gallo, Rougned Odor) and speed (Delino DeShields Jr., Elvis Andrus). If the pitching holds up, Texas could return to the postseason.

Why they might not: This resembles a mid-2000’s Rangers team: lots of offense and no pitching. Cole Hamels headlines the Texas rotation, but he’s far from the pitcher he once was. Retreads like Matt Moore, Doug Fister, and Mike Minor fill out the rest of the Rangers starting staff. Only Minor projects to have an ERA lower than 4.00. The bullpen projections look a little brighter, but this is largely the same group that ranked 28th in ERA and WHIP. I’m not holding my breath. Texas will lose a lot of 10-9 games, especially against their divisional foes.

Final Record: 80-82, 4th

Monday: I will look at the National League East

MLB Season Preview 2018: American League Central

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Mike Stobe/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 break down the American League Central.

Chicago White Sox

2017 Record: 67-95, 4th place

Why they could win the division: Like the other teams in this division outside of the Cleveland Indians, the White Sox need a LOT of things to go right to win the Central. Jose Abreu must replicate his monster 2017 season (.906 OPS). They would need breakout seasons from youngsters like Yoan Moncada, Matt Davidson, Nicky Delmonico, and Adam Engel among others. They will also benefit from facing their equally lukewarm AL Central cohabitants for most of the year. If Chicago beats up those teams and breaks about even everywhere else, then they have a chance…if you squint hard enough.

Why they might not: This team is still rebuilding. The team will rely mostly on young talent, which means there will be some growing pains throughout the season. Their rotation–which ranked in the bottom five in MLB in ERA, WHIP, BB/9, K/9, and HR/9– has James Shields and Miguel Gonzalez occupying the top two spots. Shields (5.23 ERA) is a shell of his former self while Gonzalez is an innings eater at best. Even if both men pitch well this year, they will probably get moved for more young talent. Chicago will improve their record, but they’re still a long way from taking the division. At best, they’re a darkhorse wild card pick.

Final Record: 78-84, 3rd

Cleveland Indians

2017 Record: 102-60, 1st place (lost to the New York Yankees in the ALDS)

Why they could (or will in this case) win the division: Despite a couple of departures, this is still a REALLY good baseball team. The only big change the team made was finally removing their racist Chief Wahoo logo, which will go away in 2019. On the field, the Tribe will field the same stellar cast that finishes in the top 10 in runs, OBP, and OPS. They get on base and they don’t strike out, a fruitful combination for sustainable offense The pitching staff (second in starters ERA, first in relievers ERA) has Cory Kluber and Carlos Carrasco anchoring the rotation while Cody Allen and lanky lefty Andrew Miller look to continue to shut down teams in the late innings. Combine that with a top-five defense and you get a potential World Series contender.

Why they might not: If Cleveland’s best players suffered a slip in production and/or suffered injuries, I would STILL have a hard time picking another team to win this division. That’s how wide the talent gap is between these five clubs. IF the pitching behind Kluber and Carrasco (along with Danny Salazar when he returns) falters and IF the position players struggle, then maybe the Indians will cede the central to another team. I don’t see that happening though.

Final Record: 96-66, 1st (wins World Series)

Detroit Tigers

2017 Record: 64-98, 5th place

Why they could win the division: (Looks up the Tigers roster). Yeah…they’re not winning 70 games, let alone a playoff spot or the division.

Why they won’t might not: The Tigers are starting to feel the effects of former GM Dave Dombrowski’s win-now approach. Outside of an aging Miguel Cabrera and third baseman Nick Castellanos, the offense looks pretty toothless. Other than those two, nobody projects to reach 20 homers this year. Their rotation, which ranked 28th in ERA last year, looks just as woeful this year. Their best starter, Jordan Zimmerman, finished with a 6.08 ERA last year, and his 5.18 FIP suggests that his struggles were no fluke. The Tigers better hope that Michael Fulmer pitches more like he did in the first half of 2017 (3.19 ERA) than the second (5.33 ERA). The team added Fransisco Liriano and Mike Fiers, but they feel more like trade chips than long-term solutions. The bullpen, which flummoxed the Tigers front office when they were perennial contenders, is still terrible. Their defense (29th in defensive runs saved) is still terrible. This rebuild is going to take a loooooong time.

Final Record: 65-97, 5th

Kansas City Royals

2017 Record: 80-82, 3rd place

Why they could win the division: Well, it wouldn’t be the first time K.C. snagged the A.L. Central crown from under Cleveland’s nose. The Royals kept a couple of key pieces when they re-signed Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar and added some pop in the form of Lucas Duda. If the pitching improves, Ned Yost’s club could surprise people again.

Why they might not: This isn’t the same team that made consecutive World Series appearances in 2014 and 2015. Kelvin Herrera is the lone remaining member of that dynamite bullpen. Lorenzo Cain is gone. Eric Hosmer is gone. Jarrod Dyson is gone. The team just feels like a shell of its former self. While Kansas City won 80 games last year, their Pythagorean total of 72 wins paints a bleaker picture of the team’s current state. These guys will compete, but the Royals seem closer to rebuilding than contending.

Final Record: 74-88, 4th

Minnesota Twins

2017 Record: 85-77, 2nd place (wild card, lost to the New York Yankees in the Wild Card Game)

Why they could win the division: All of that promise and young talent finally reaped some benefits for the Twins last year. Minnesota rode a stellar offense (top 10 in runs, steals and OPS) and flashy defense (10th in DRS) to their first playoff birth since 2010. Many of the pieces on offense, including sluggers Miguel Sano and Brian Dozier, are still here. Future Hall-of-Famer Joe Mauer, now a first baseman, can still rake (.305/.384/.417 slash line last year). Centerfielder Byron Buxton looks like the two-way star that Minnesota fans envisioned him to be. They even added some cheap power in the form of Logan Morrison (32 homers for Tampa Bay in 2017). The rotation is a little banged up, but offseason acquisitions Lance Lynn and Jake Odorizzi should keep enough runs off the board for the Twins’ potent offense. If the pitching holds up, Minnesota should prove that last year was no fluke.

Why they might not: As is always the case in Minnesota, the pitching remains a question mark. They won’t have Michael Pineda (Tommy John surgery) of the length of the season. They won’t have Ervin Santana for the start of the season either. In a competitive American League, that could prove the difference between making the playoffs and sitting at home come October. Banking on 39-year-old Fernando Rodney to close games of you is also a risky proposition. This is a young team on the rise, but they still don’t have enough to catch Cleveland yet.

Final Record: 83-79, 2nd

Tomorrow: I will analyze the American League West

 

 

 

MLB Season Preview 2018: American League East

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Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images North America

Note: This piece was written before the Orioles signed pitcher Alex Cobb

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 start with the American League East.

Baltimore Orioles

2017 Record: 75-87, 5th place

Why they could win the division: Fangraphs currently projects the Orioles to win 75 games in 2018, which would match last year’s total. However, Buck Showalter’s clubs have defied the odds in the past, and they could do so again this year. If Baltimore wants to beat the projections once more, they’ll need to rely on their usual mix of power and stingy relief pitching. Their offense, headlined by shortstop Manny Machado, will send a lot of balls into the seats. Even without lockdown closer Zach Britton, the bullpen is still in capable hands with the likes of Darren O’Day, Brad Brach, and Mychal Givens. If the starting rotation (last in MLB in ERA in 2017) pitches even slightly better than they did a season ago, this team can return to the playoffs.

Why they might not: If I’m an Orioles fan (and I am), I would trust this rotation as far as I could throw it. Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Dan Duquette brought back a rotation that ranked in the bottom half of the majors in almost every important statistical category. He’s banking on improvements from former top prospects Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy, but it remains to be seen if they can take the next step in their progression. The team replaced the departed Ubaldo Jimenez and Wade Miley with Andrew Cashner and Mike Wright. Those aren’t exactly significant upgrades. The offense, while loaded with power bats, still struggles to get on base (27th in OBP) and still doesn’t steal bases (last in MLB). Even the bullpen has started to show some leaks (12th in ERA, last in K/9). The relievers might struggle to adjust their new roles early on. With the Yankees on the rise and Boston as good as ever, this could be a long season for the O’s.

Final record: 77-85 (5th place)

Boston Red Sox

2017 Record: 93-69, 1st place (lost to the Houston Astros in the ALDS)

Why they could win the division: Boston’s roster is almost identical to the team that won the AL East last year. That’s both a good and bad thing for Red Sox fans. The Sox improved an offense that ranked 22nd in OPS and 27th in home runs last year with the addition of slugger J.D. Martinez. The former Arizona Diamondback didn’t get the lavish contract he expected at the start of free agency, but his .303/.376/.690 slash line should give the lineup a boost. Combine that with a full season of Rafael Devers and the usual production from the other stars (especially when Dustin Pedroia returns) and Boston will give opposing pitchers fits in 2018. The rotation is a little banged up, but with Chris Sale and David Price leading the way, Boston is in good hands.

Why they might not: Fangraphs projects the Red Sox to win the AL East again this year, but with the burgeoning Yankees on their heels, that isn’t a certainty. As dynamic as Boston’s lineup is, they may still struggle to hit home runs. Some of that is due to the dimensions of Fenway Park (park factors ranked them as the fifth toughest place to homer at in 2017), some of it is because of the lack of pop in the lineup. Martinez should help, but some of the homers he hit last year might turn into doubles this year (Fenway was the fourth easiest place to hit doubles at last year). Outside of Sale and Price–who isn’t the pitcher he once was–the Sox have serious question marks in the rotation. With Brian Johnson and Hector Velazquez expected to fill in for Steven Wright and Drew Pomeranz (both are on the DL), that could determine whether Boston plays in the wild card game or if they get the EZ Pass to the ALDS.

Final Record: 92-70 (2nd, wild card eliminated in ALDS)

New York Yankees

2017 Record: 91-71, 2nd place (wild card, lost to the Houston Astros in the ALCS)

Why they could win the division: Rookie manager Aaron Boone inherits a New York club that came within a game of reaching the World Series last October. The “Bronx Bombers” returned in a big way last year; leading the majors in home runs and ranking third in OPS. Those stats may rise even further with the addition of Giancarlo Stanton (1.007 OPS). The 2017 NL MVP joins a lineup that has two 50 homer guys and other emerging stars like Gary Sanchez, Didi Gregorius, and Greg Bird. They will have no trouble scoring runs.

The pitching staff, which ranked in the top five in starters and relievers ERA, looks similar to last years outfit. Young flamethrower Luis Severino, who enjoyed a breakout campaign last year, anchors this rotation. He’s flanked by incumbent veterans Masahiro Tanaka (3.77 ERA, .229/.267/.405 opponents slash line in second half of 2017), C.C. Sabathia (3.69 ERA), and Sonny Gray (3.72 ERA in 11 starts with the Yankees). The bullpen boasts the stingy trio of Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, and David Robertson; all of them had ERA’s no lower than 3.22 in 2017. These Yankees have a good chance of unseating Boston at the top of the AL East…

Why they might not: …Unless the rotation falls apart. Severino looks like a safe bet to repeat his 2017 success, as does Gray, but the same can’t be said for the other two mainstays. Tanaka’s disastrous first half (5.47 ERA) might be difficult to erase from Yankee fans’ minds. They better hope his gaudy home run totals (1.77 HR/9) were due to a fluky 21.2 HR/FB ratio. Sabathia is also due to regress to the mean (4.49 FIP in 2017). If they struggle and Severino slips a bit, New York is in trouble. Their bullpen isn’t airtight either. They tend to walk a lot of batters (19th in BB/9) and those could come back to haunt them, especially come October. Thier two best players on offense, Stanton and Judge, whiff a lot (both ranked in the top 30 in strikeout rate), meaning the Yankees could endure some prolonged scoring slumps. The Yankees are too good to miss the playoffs, but their deficiencies could cost them the division.

Final Record: 94-68 (1st, eliminated in ALCS)

Tampa Bay Rays

2017 Record: 80-82 (3rd place)

Why they could win the division: As usual, pitching powers manager Kevin Cash’s club. Tampa Bay ranked in the top 10 in ERA and WHIP for both the starters and relievers last year, and the Rays hope to do the same in 2018. Chris Archer is still the staff ace, and he should improve on last year’s 4.07 ERA. The other starters–Blake Snell, Nathan Eovaldi, and Jacob Faria–are less reliable, but they should thrive in the most spacious ballpark in the AL East. Plus, they’ll get to pitch behind a tremendous defense (3rd in defensive runs saved last year) headlined by ballhawk centerfielder Kevin Keirmaier. The Rays will also get help from a bevy of top prospects that are scheduled to come up this year, like Jake Bauers, Justin Williams, Anthony Banda, Christian Arroyo, and Willy Adames. In other words, the Rays might look very different at the end of the year. If the Rays’ offense produces at an average rate to buttress the pitching, they could surprise some people.

Why they might not: This team won’t feel the same without Evan Longoria manning third base. The 2018 Rays lineup doesn’t gin up a lot of fear on paper. Carlos Gomez is probably the most dangerous hitter in this lineup. That doesn’t bode well for Tampa Bay. There is also some uncertainty in the rotation thanks to the departures of Alex Cobb and Jake Odorizzi. While those two weren’t Cy Young candidates by any stretch, they provided steady production that’s hard to replace. For the Rays to compete, everything needs to go right. If not, they might start fielding offers for their veteran players, starting with Archer.

Final record: 81-81 (fourth)

Toronto Blue Jays

2017 Record: 76-86, fourth place

Why they could win the division: The Blue Jays were terrible in almost every offensive category last year, so they did some retooling. Out went Jose Bautista, in came Curtis Granderson, Randal Grichuk, and Aledmys Diaz. Granderson and Grichuk should easily replace Bautista’s substandard production while Diaz should aid a Toronto defense that ranked 21st in defensive runs saved. Josh Donalson is still the player that opponents will gameplan around. The 2015 AL MVP’s production slipped a little last year, but he is still one of the best two-way players in the game. If Justin Smoak can replicate his 2017 season (not out of the question), that should be more than enough to ensure opposing pitchers throw strikes to Donaldson. On the mound, youngster Marcus Stroman improves his ERA by more than one run in 2017. If he pitches just as well this year and gets help from the other starters (including a full season from Aaron Sanchez), then Toronto could be a good sleeper pick in the AL.

Why they might not: Even at their best, the Blue Jays don’t have the arms or the bats to hang with Boston or New York. Any team that banks on quality seasons from Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ to bring them back to the playoffs is rolling the dice. Outside of Donaldson, the Toronto lineup comprises of mostly average hitters. That’s actually the best way to sum up the Blue Jays: average but not spectacular. Average is good enough to stay respectable, but it won’t get Toronto into the playoffs.

Final Record: 83-79 (third)

Tomorrow: I will analyze the American League Central Teams

 

Andrew Cashner signs with the Orioles. Yay?

 

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Tom Pennington/Getty Images North America

On Thursday afternoon, the Orioles added a veteran starter to a rotation in desperate need of reinforcements. So who did Dan Duquette sign to bolster the Orioles’ starting group? Did he bring Jake Arrieta back? What about Alex Cobb? Well, it wasn’t either of those two. Instead, the O’s agreed to a two-year, $16 million deal with journeyman starter Andrew Cashner. Will the 31-year-old Cashner’s presence push the Orioles back into playoff contention? His track record suggests that he won’t.

Through seven big-league seasons, Cashner has produced league average results on the mound. He has pitched to a 3.80 ERA for his career, though his advanced numbers weren’t as kind (3.99 FIP, 4.12 xFIP). He has averaged about 1.3 fWAR (Fangraphs WAR) over his lengthy career, which pegs him as a back-of-the-rotation innings eater than a top-level starter.

Cashner spent 2017 with the Texas Rangers and pitched well, but his success last year came with some red flags. His 3.40 ERA was more than a run lower than his FIP (4.61). He thrived in Texas thanks to a .266 opponents batting average on balls in play–league average is between .290 and .310–and 8.6% HR/FB ratio (10.4% for his career) that aided his 0.81 HR/9 total (he did give up more homers in Texas than he did on the road). Cashner’s ability to keep the ball on the ground helped him keep the ball in the park, but he is moving from the majors eighth best park to launch home runs in to the third in Camden Yards. Combine that with the powerful AL East lineups and Cashner may see his home run totals skyrocket.

The evidence shows that Cashner is an average starter and nothing more. Here’s the thing, he is still a MASSIVE upgrade over whoever the Orioles were planning to stick in that rotation spot. Baltimore’s starting pitching dilemma has been well documented: they ranked last in ERA, 28th in FIP, and 27th in WAR. Their projected staff “ace” Dylan Bundy finished with a 4.24 ERA last year, though he did show flashes of brilliance. This team had Mike Wright penciled into the rotation before the Cashner signing. No team that’s serious about contending would put Mike Wright in their starting five.

Adding Cashner doesn’t make the Orioles a contender, I think even the most die-hard fan will admit that. Honestly, No pitcher short of Yu Darvish or another ace of that ilk will move the O’s up the standings in 2018. The Yankees look like they’re back (unfortunately). The Red Sox still have the same collection of young, talented players.

The Orioles are essentially the same team too, and I don’t mean that in a good way. They are still the same free swinging, homer hunting lineup that doesn’t steal bases or manufacture runs. Their rotation still features the same fly-ball inducing, erratic bunch that struggle to keep opponents off base.

After whiffing on Ubaldo Jimenez, Orioles owner Peter Angelos has been reticent to spend big money on a starter–although anyone could have envisioned that signing not going well. This time around, he doled out modest money for a modest starter. In the end, Cashner will only deliver modest results for a team that needs more to compete with the AL East powers.