Wednesday, March 28, 2018

MLB 2018 Season Predictions (Part 1)

Photograph by Don Hamerman.

Nearly two decades into the 21st century, Baseball has evolved into something weird. Last year was the first time I can remember that I began to lose interest in the sport. It's been one of my favorite things, period, for as long as I can remember. Last year that started to change.

The ball is clearly modified in some way to cause a great deal more home runs. It makes the game feel cheapened. Records are being shattered. Yes, we've been through something like this before with the steroid era, but it feels worse now since it's so obvious to all observers that the league itself is responsible. There are not many things that can make me feel unenthused about baseball. I don't even mind the long games that much. But a baseball game becoming a sideshow full of bizarre, fluky home runs and endless strikeouts is just not entertaining to watch.

A quiet offseason during which nearly a third of all clubs made clear their lack of intent to significantly improve their chances made things even more unsettling. As the league itself floats the idea of making catastrophic changes to the rules (allowing teams to select any three hitters to bat in the 9th inning; starting extra innings with a runner in scoring position automatically), it seems baseball is on the verge of becoming something unrecognizable.

Despite all that, the irrepressible joys and expectations of spring have me excited for the upcoming baseball season, hopeful for my Mets and A's and intrigued to see some of the newly reconfigured teams like the Angels and Brewers.

As usual, I've thrown together some thoughts on each team with a prediction for where they'll finish. This includes an Over/Under pick against the projected win total generated by Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system. (A pointless exercise for multiple reasons, sure, but that hasn't stopped me from doing this for the eighth consecutive year.)

AL East

1. Yankees
PECOTA: 97 wins
My pick: Under

Okay, so the roster is absolutely stacked from top to bottom---the lineup is terrifying, the pitching staff better than it's been in ages, and the bullpen could very well be the best in baseball. I just cannot fathom why the hell this storied franchise would hand the managerial reins over to a guy who not only has never managed a single baseball game for so much as a minor league ball club, he's never even been a bench coach or a third-base coach or coached anything at all! Aaron Boone was a mediocre ballplayer, then he was a milquetoast television commentator, and suddenly he's managing the New York Yankees with their astronomical expectations. I don't get it.

2. Red Sox
PECOTA: 89 wins
My pick: Over (Wild Card)

Despite finishing ahead of the vaunted Yankees to win the AL East last year, the 2017 Sox underperformed significantly. David Price pitched well (3.38 ERA, 3.64 FIP) but was on the mound for just 74.2 innings. Rick Porcello followed up his 22-win Cy Young campaign in 2016 with a 17-loss disaster in 2017. And the offense struggled mightily---by FanGraphs' wRC+ metric they were the 9th-worst offense in MLB. All of which is to say, they finished in first place last year and yet they could have a bounceback season in 2018. JD Martinez makes a huge difference for the offense. Rafael Devers is just 21 years old but having him in the lineup for a full season ought to be a huge boost. It may not be enough to overtake the Yanks again but they'll be good.

3. Orioles
PECOTA: 71 wins
My pick: Over  

This is the pick that I'm most surprised to make, since I've looked upon the Orioles as a pitiful organization for most of the offseason. They're torturing their fans by making no viable attempt to re-sign Manny Machado, a homegrown potential Hall of Fame player in the prime of his career. I think the general expectation is that they'll suck this year then trade the franchise star, then fade into oblivion for many years. I have an inkling Buck Showalter will squeeze one last competitive run out of this group, only to see it fall short in the end.

4. Blue Jays
PECOTA: 79 wins
My pick: Under 

I really don't get what the Jays are doing. They're one of many teams that seemingly could've made some big moves this offseason to take advantage of a quiet market and stack up for another run at the postseason. Instead they basically stood pat, making some lateral moves by adding Curtis Granderson and Randal Grichuk. There is a potential path to success here with a solid starting rotation, strong defense up the middle, and the ferocious beast that is Josh mother-effing Donaldson atop the lineup (only Mike Trout, Joey Votto, and Bryce Harper have hit better than his 153 wRC+ since 2015), but it seems more likely this is the end of the road. Too bad because Toronto is a great city and they've gone head-over-heels for this team recently.

5. Rays
PECOTA: 83 wins
My pick: Under

Seriously, what the fuck are these Florida teams trying to do to their fans? In one offseason, all the best players from both the Rays and Marlins were traded away, including franchise mainstays Evan Longoria and Giancarlo Stanton. Both teams now resemble hollowed-out husks. Nobody will pay to watch this garbage. This is an embarrassment to baseball and pro sports in general.

AL Central

1. Indians
PECOTA: 96 wins
My pick: Under

I could certainly be very wrong about this, but I can't help thinking this team has peaked already. An epic yet ultimately unsuccessful World Series run in 2016 followed by a 102-win season last year that was perfect in every way except for an early playoff exit---beyond the wise maneuverings, it takes a ton of good fortune to sustain that kind of success. Nevertheless, winning 90+ games and another division crown in 2018 is practically a guarantee. I just doubt this group will ever be as good as the 2016-17 run again.

2. Twins
PECOTA: 82 wins
My pick: Over 

The Twins offense finished 6th among all MLB teams in walk % last year. This organization has completely restructured their approach to the game. Well, almost completely---their pitching staff still hardly strikes anybody out. New additions Jake Odorizzi and Lance Lynn won't change that much, but they're solid innings-eaters. Same with Ervin Santana. That ought to be good enough as long as Jose Berrios and Kyle Gibson continue to improve. I dig what the new front office regime has been doing here, but doubt they'll ascend past the Red Sox and Angels for a Wild Card spot.

3. White Sox
PECOTA: 72 wins
My pick: Over ?

Hard to believe I'm predicting a team with James Shields (67 homeruns given up between 2016-2017) as their Opening Day starter to finish in 3rd place. Bad as this roster is, there's at least some legit major league talent here (Jose Abreu, Avisail Garcia) and plenty of young players with upside. Can't say the same for the teams below them.

4. Royals
PECOTA: 65 wins
My pick: Under

As a Mets fan, it's kind of ironic and a little upsetting that Lucas Duda ended up replacing Eric Hosmer on the Royals considering their involvement in the most memorable (and painful) play of the 2015 World Series.

5. Tigers
PECOTA: 68 wins
My pick: Under 

The Tigers are headed toward a long, dark, sad period and I feel sorry for their fans.

AL West

1. Astros
PECOTA: 99 wins
My pick: Under

Sure, they bulked up an already incredible team and look like they'll steamroll over the league again, but a 99-win projection is absurd.

2. Angels 
PECOTA: 79 wins
My pick: Over (Wild Card)

I loved the additions they made this offseason, finally giving Mike Trout a solid surrounding cast. The infield defense, with newcomers Ian Kinsler and Zack Cozart next to the league's best shortstop Andrelton Simmons, should keep this team afloat no matter what happens to their brittle starting rotation. They'll be a fun team to watch.

3. A's
PECOTA: 76 wins
My pick: Over

Lost in all the negative assessments of this financially-strapped and retooling team is the fact that the A's were basically a .500 team in the second half last year. They also played at a 92-win pace at home all season. They were not as terrible as you think. With two ascendant young sluggers, Matt Olson and Matt Chapman, plus new pieces like Stephen Piscotty and Jonathan Lucroy, they now look like a potential surprise contender. The lineup doesn't have any glaring weakness, and the combination of a much-improved defense and a deep bullpen could mitigate the lackluster rotation. Don't sleep on the green-and-gold this year.

4. Mariners
PECOTA: 82 wins
My pick: Under 

Like most baseball fans, I'd love to see the Mariners bring an end to their looooong postseason drought and get Felix Hernandez on the mound in October. I just don't think that's gonna happen this year. My pessimism for this team is mainly due to Robinson Cano showing signs of decline last year at age 34, but the flimsy starting rotation beyond fragile lefty James Paxton doesn't inspire much hope either.

5. Rangers
PECOTA: 75 wins
My pick: Over

While mentally preparing these picks I've been trying to envision a scenario in which a rotation consisting of Cole Hamels, Matt Moore, Doug Fister, and Mike Minor (?!) leads the Rangers into meaningful games in the final weeks of the season. I don't see it happening. And the strategy of stacking the staff with lefties seems odd when considering how many tough right-handed hitters they'll be facing in this division---throwing a bunch of lefties against the likes of Mike Trout, Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, Nelson Cruz, and Khris Davis, especially in the homer-haven of Globe Life Park, is a recipe for disaster. 

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