Friday, March 30, 2018

MLB 2018 Season Predictions (Part 2)

Gazing at the future thru the crystal ball...

Continuing the altogether futile and pointless exercise of predicting how each division will shake up and providing an Over/Under selection against Baseball Prospectus' 2018 win projection for each team, this time in the National League.

There's quite a bit of monotony here---the Dodgers have finished atop the NL West every year for five years running and they are an easy bet to win it again in 2018. The NL Central crown has gone to either the Cardinals or Cubs every year since 2013. The Cubs, Dodgers, and Nationals were NL division winners each of the last two years and are all favored to do it again this year. Certainly seems there's a lack of parity, but admittedly I enjoy the intrigue it creates since any challenger(s) to the hegemony of the Dodgers-Cubs-Nats stronghold tends to be a fascinating underdog, like the Mets in 2015 or the Brewers last year. I also enjoy the October rivalries that have developed between the Dodgers-Cubs-Nats and their respective stars. Parity be damned if it means we get to witness the game's elite players---Kenley Jansen facing Bryce Harper with a series on the line comes to mind---deciding the most high stakes ballgames.
NL East

1. Nationals
PECOTA: 89 wins
My pick: Over

These picks represent what I objectively expect to happen---what I would bet on---not how I want it all to shape out. Personally, I dislike the Nats about as much as I dislike the Yankees. They're the key rival to my beloved Mets. Their lineup features Daniel Murphy, a former beloved Met who immediately became an All Star once he joined the arch rival Nats. Bryce Harper is entertaining to watch but he's also a perfect baseball villain. I dread my Mets having to deal with the relentless pest Adam Eaton all year. And the game's most dominant pitcher besides Clayton Kershaw, three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, stands atop one of the best rotations in baseball. It seems they may have finally addressed their one weakness, the bullpen, too. Much as I hate the Nats and will heartily root for their downfall, that roster is just too deep, the dominance of that core too imposing to not expect them to win the NL East again and try to finally, at long last, make it past the first round of the playoffs! That last part I wouldn't bet on, though.

2. Mets
PECOTA: 80 wins
My pick: Over (Wild Card)

Last year was a sad one for Mets fans---everyone got hurt, beloved players (Granderson and Duda) were traded away and the promising pitching staff imploded, finishing with the second-worst ERA in the NL. Thankfully, Sandy Alderson responded with big changes: he brought in an entirely new medical staff, about which...we'll see; added some sluggers in Todd Frazier and the returning Jay Bruce; bolstered the bullpen with Anthony Swarzak and picked up a perfectly reliable innings-eater to hold down the back of the rotation in Jason Vargas. The main reason I have high hopes for the Mets this year, though, besides the irrationality of my fanhood, is the addition of Mickey Callaway as the new manager, replacing Terry Collins. Callaway earned accolades for his handling of the Cleveland pitching staff the last few years, guiding them to one of the best overall performances by a starting rotation in baseball history last year. The Mets success depends entirely on their immensely talented starting rotation---if Callaway can get this staff to do their best work the way he did in Cleveland, the sky is the limit for the Amazins.

3. Phillies
PECOTA: 81 wins
My pick: Under

A popular sleeper pick after a nice little offseason in which they added important pieces (on-base machine Carlos Santana and former ace Jake Arrieta) to their nice little up-and-coming ballclub. Now the lineup lacks any glaring weakness and the rotation has the potential to be very good. The meteoric rise of 25-year-old Rhys Hoskins (18 home runs last year in just 50 games) seems fluky but all he's ever done is hit in every level (career .907 OPS in the minors)---in fact, the Phillies may have found the next Paul Goldschmidt. While I wouldn't be surprised if they approach the periphery of playoff contention, I don't think the young guys like JP Crawford, Jorge Alfaro, and Nick Williams are all ready to become significant contributors yet, and the free-swinging Maikel Franco (who I witnessed crush two homers, including a grand slam at spring training game in Bradenton last week) remains a huge question mark despite his obvious talents.

4. Braves
PECOTA: 76 wins
My pick: Under

The bizarre swindle pulled by this org on their city by forcing through a brand new, completely unnecessary, publicly-funded ballpark adds a new level of disgust for the chicanery of baseball's filthy rich overseers. As for the team on the field, sure there's lots of young talent in the mix, especially Ronald Acuña (currently being screwed over by another underhanded move by those with the money/power), and Freddie Freeman is amazing, but it'll be another year of rebuilding in Atlanta.

5. Marlins
PECOTA: 65 wins
My pick: Under

So bad they aren't even worth writing about but I do have some random thoughts so here:
  • Derek Jeter, much as he was a respectable ballplayer, seems like a prick. The Giancarlo Stanton trade, much as it is a boon to Stanton himself, really does not look good considering the other factors involved.
  • Just imagine if Jeter came in and realized all this team needed was to sign some starting pitchers (in a cheap free agent market with plenty of arms available) and they'd immediately become a playoff contender. They were a strong offensive ballclubs in 2017 led by a solid core of young hitters (Stanton, Ozuna, Yelich, Bour), an excellent defensive team, only being held back by abysmal pitching. 
  • With what this fan base has dealt with already considering all the teardowns, the whole Jeffrey Loria era, and the tragic death of a franchise icon, the Jeter fire sale of 2017 just felt gross. 
  • Most projections and prognosticators expect the 2018 Marlins to absolutely suck. 
  • Despite all of the above... I'm actually surprised to see almost every position on this roster occupied by an actual major league contributor. 
  • Still, they're going to suck.

NL Central

1. Cubs
PECOTA: 91 wins
My pick: Over

The Cubs dynasty carries on. Their comeback from a slow start last year, ascending to another division crown and into the NLCS for a third straight season, is just another notch on their belt. Replacing Jake Arrieta with Yu Darvish is probably an improvement. The two MVP candidates, Rizzo and Bryant, continue to get better. They're still the best defensive team in baseball. And Joe Maddon continues to have an extremely flexible, versatile roster at his disposal. I expect we'll see many more Cubs-Dodgers NLCS battles in the future.

2. Brewers
PECOTA: 84 wins
My pick: Over (Wild Card)

I'm officially on the bandwagon. GM David Stearns---like me, a NYC-native, Mets fan, stats dork born in 1985---is living one of my dream lives and he's thriving at it. The wunderkind completely revamped the Brew Crew through shrewd player moves last year then made some big bold trades this offseason. They surprised everyone by skipping a rebuilding year and leading the division for the first half of 2017 before fading. Now they've added one of the game's best young players, Christian Yelich, to an already deep roster with young, improving talent. The rotation is their one question mark but while there's no ace among the batch of starters they've assembled, there's no gaping holes either. I'm excited to see what this team can do and interested to observe how Stearns tinkers to help them improve.

3. Cardinals
PECOTA: 85 wins
My pick: Over

It seems the San Antonio Spurs of baseball have now been officially overtaken by the Cubs and Brew Crew. Much like the Spurs, the perennial contenders are overlooked in the era of the Super Team. Partly it's because they're boring---the Cardinals lack a superstar presence despite having above-average players across the board. Unlike the Spurs, whose coach is a huge part of their success, the decision maker on the bench for the Cards has actively made his team worse for years now. In what will probably be a tight division, that will make a difference.

4. Reds 
PECOTA: 74 wins
My pick: Over

I've been low on the Reds for a while, mainly because of their abysmal pitching. Right-handed starter Luis Castillo emerged last year showing flashes of dominance over 15 starts with high-90s heat, a filthy slider, and a nearly un-hittable changeup. One solid young pitcher does not a rotation make, but it's the best we can say of the Reds' pitching development in a long time. They've also assembled an excellent defense. If their division foes weren't so good they'd be a sleeper.

5. Pirates
PECOTA: 77 wins
My pick: Under

Maybe I'm putting too much emphasis on the one spring training game I attended last week where the Bucs got shellacked 8-2 and looked pretty helpless. Despite having just traded away their two best players, Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen, this is still a roster full of young talent with upside. I don't expect them to be very good, though, and further chopping down for a rebuild seems likely. 

NL West

1. Dodgers
PECOTA: 97 wins
My pick: Over

Typically I bet the Under on the higher win projections but I think the Dodgers have just entered a new phase of supreme dominance. They've been a good team for a long time, but last year's 104-win season (most wins they've had since their Brooklyn days) represents a new height I expect them to sustain for a while. We are in the era of the Super Team but even among that bunch, the Dodgers are the cream of the crop. Sure, they lost the World Series last year, but they will be back and if they don't win a title this year, they'll be a great bet to do so next year and the year after.

2. D'backs
PECOTA: 88 wins
My pick: Under

My oh my, that rotation is good. Zack Greinke's return to form last year led a starting staff that was, by a number of metrics (Fangraphs' WAR and FIP), the 2nd-best in all of baseball, trailing only the historically dominant Cleveland Indians. They return the same starting five this year and if they can manage to replicate that success they'll be a Wild Card favorite. I'm going to err on the side of chaos and disorder in the desert with this pick.

3. Rockies
PECOTA: 78 wins
My pick: Over

They finally seemed to figure out their pitching conundrum---last year they were 4th in the NL in pitching WAR, just behind the Nationals. I suspect pitching-guru-turned-manager Bud Black has something to do with the Rox newfound success on the mound. Oddly, the problem is now their lineup. By Baseball Prospectus' park-adjusted True Average, the 2018 offense is projected to be perform better than only the lowly Marlins, Padres, and Braves. Despite that, I think the star talent of Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon, combined with promising young hitters Ryan McMahon, David Dahl, and Raimel Tapia coming along, and Bud Black pulling the levers on a redesigned bullpen will be enough to keep them in contention.

4. Giants
PECOTA: 82 wins
My pick: Under

Ya have to admire their intentions---while so many teams were content to stand pat or endure the long night of rebuilding, the Giants made a couple big trades for veterans to try for one last run. If the oldest lineup in baseball can stay healthy they've got a 1-thru-8 that can hang with anyone. It's the rotation that could be problematic. Madison Bumgarner is coming off losing a half-season to injury and is already hurt again. Johnny Cueto fell off a cliff last year and is no longer a sure thing. Beyond those two, it looks like a struggle to stay afloat.

5. Padres
PECOTA: 73 wins
My pick: Under

The outlandish contract given to Eric Hosmer is odd for a team that's remained in a perpetual state of rebuilding for basically a decade now. In the last 18 full seasons, the Padres have won 90 games just once, 2010---it so happened that was the year I lived within walking distance to Petco Park, went to dozens of games and chronicled all of it in this blog.

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