Wednesday, March 27, 2019

MLB 2019 Predictions, Part 1

With much uncertainty and turbulence in the world nowadays, I cling to baseball like a ship mast in a rain squall. The return of my favorite game puts me in a good mood for the first time in a while as I've been spending free time getting lost in reading season previews and stat projections. Or watching old World Series classics on YouTube. Or reading baseball books. Or nerding out on baseball podcasts. Or contemplating the future of the new season that begins tomorrow.

What follows here are my predictions for each team, selecting an over/under based on Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA win projections for the 2019 season (found here). I'll start off with the American League which looks to be somewhat boring standings-wise since it's very likely be the same four teams dominating from start to finish yet again (the Yankees, Astros, Indians, and Red Sox) with only a few stragglers fighting to for the last playoff spot (presumably the A's, Rays, Twins, maybe the Angels or.... the Mariners?).

Here's what I hope happens in the AL: the Rays or A's knock off the heavily favored juggernauts. Here's what I would bet on happening: the Astros defeat the Yankees for the AL pennant.

(PECOTA numbers as of March 24th, 2019)

American League

AL East

1. Yankees
PECOTA: 96 wins
My pick: Over

Of course the Yankees, after a 100-win season, had to go out and upgrade their rotation with top-line lefty starter James Paxton. Though he's injury prone, when Paxton is on he's among the most dominant starters in the game. Baseball-reference's similarity scores liken him to Corey Kluber, Aaron Nola, and Luis Severino. Speaking of Severino, he's on the shelf with a shoulder injury to start the year, perhaps giving Yankee haters like myself a glimmer of hope. Alas, this team is a rolling fortress built to withstand the inevitable obstacles of starting pitcher injuries. Their bullpen is a gauntlet of giants throwing triple-digit heaters and serpentine sliders. In an era when teams use their bullpens more than ever, the Yankees, ever the extremists, built the best bullpen anyone has ever seen. This has been their thing for a while now. They've only added to the fearsome batch of endgame arms as we go into 2019. Check out how far the Yanks' bullpen exceeds the rest of the league in FanGraphs' positional rankings (by projected WAR), it's absurd:

From here.

The Yankee approach to sustainable and indestructible dominance also relies on the most fearsome assemblage of sluggers in baseball. Last year the Yankees broke the all-time record for home runs hit with 267 and that was while their best hitter Aaron Judge missed 50 games and their second best hitter Gary Sanchez was hurt and hit terribly when he played. And Giancarlo Stanton had a down year, with 21 fewer homers than his MVP performance in 2017. The Yankees play in a homer haven with seemingly a dozen guys who can hit 20 bombs.

For years the Yanks have tended to sacrifice defense for good hitters, but now they added one of the game's best infield gloves in DJ LeMahieu. Troy Tulowitzki can still pick it and might be a nice fill-in for shortstop Didi Gregorius who'll be out most of the year. More likely, the Yankees' slugging middle infielder Gleyber Torres, a 22-year old product of the Cubs' farm system, will emerge as a star and take over at shortstop. They've got depth, they've got Aaron Judge, they've got a supremely dominant bullpen, and they've bulked up last year's 100-win team. I expect them to once again win 100-something games and wrangle with the Astros for best record in baseball.

2. Red Sox 
PECOTA: 90 wins 
My pick: Over (Wild Card) 

I was high on the Sox last year, but didn't quite expect 108 wins and a World Series level of heights for them. I still don't. As much as I love watching this team (their rivalry with the Yankees is suddenly must-see tv again and their playoff run last year was thrilling to watch), I'm skeptical this roster can maintain that level of greatness. I'll take the over on PECOTA's 90 wins, but I don't think the Sox will win 100 games again. Too many things went perfectly right for them last year and they've basically stood pat this offseason.

It'll be interesting to see Dustin Pedroia return to this bunch after all they just accomplished and they could certainly use an upgrade second base. Third baseman Rafael Devers is still young enough to get much better as a hitter. Mookie Betts and JD Martinez, even if not MVP-level players again, are likely to be great. Xander Bogaerts is my favorite of baseball's current crop of exciting shortstops and anchors this team. On the mound they've got Chris Sale, the stringbean lefthander whose approach looks like a preying mantis fighting thru wind and whose results rank him among the top 2 or 3 pitchers in baseball. David Price was a surprise playoff hero but it remains to be seen whether he can sustain his success for a full season in Boston.

I think they'll be back in the playoff race again and, sure, that's a crapshoot but a lot of things broke right for them last year and defending their AL crown with the Yankees and Astros looming will not come easily for this team.

3. Rays (Wild Card)
PECOTA: 85 wins
My pick: Over

I got to watch this team play in Spring Training and, like many baseball geeks, I'm extremely excited to see what the Rays do this year. Last year they won 90 games despite playing in a division with two behemoths and sporting one of the lowest payrolls in all of baseball. They also suffered a bunch of pitching injuries to start the year, but made up for all that, as the Rays are wont to do, by chipping away at the margins. They deployed creative strategies rarely seen nowadays, mainly around their use of relievers. Their "opener" approach, for instance, made a big splash and could very well bring about a revolution in the game. (Brian Kenny deserves credit there, he wrote extensively about the benefits of that strategy in his great book, Ahead of the Curve.) They also weren't afraid to temporarily place relief pitchers at first base or third base in order to gain an advantage. They've got a cutting edge, creative braintrust making decisions and they've just added Jeff Sullivan, one of the internet's most astute sabermetric analysts, to the front office so things could soon get even more interesting.

Knowing their flexible approach to deploying their players, the roster is fascinating to behold. They've got a bunch of guys who can seemingly play all over the infield and outfield (I'm thinking of Daniel Robertson, Joey Wendle, Matt Duffy and Yandy Diaz). They've got a budding young shortstop with power and exuberance in Willy Adames. The addition of outfielder Tommy Pham from the Cardinals last year was a steal, he caught fire in Tampa with an OPS of 1.071. Avisail Garcia crushed a line drive home run when I saw the Rays play in Spring Training and could be a great pickup for this power-starved team. Both Brandon Lowe and Austin Meadows have minimal major league experience but have both crushed it in the minors and looked good in their brief MLB stints last year. The two 24-year-olds could both see their stocks rise in their first full MLB season.

The versatile lineup may not match the Yanks or Red Sox bomb for bomb, but the Rays are among the best run prevention teams in baseball. Their defense is excellent and the pitching staff is loaded. They drew so much attention for their creative bullpen strategies and their pen is indeed full of flamethrowers, but they've also got the reigning Cy Young winner Blake Snell fronting the rotation. Charlie Morton ought to be a great addition for them. Young giant Tyler Glasnow finally seemed to harness his stuff after arriving from Pittsburgh in a trade for Chris Archer last year. And the Rays, led by Kevin Kiermaier in centerfield, are one of the game's best when it comes to turning balls in play into outs. All in all, theirs is an irresistibly fascinating approach to trying to contend with the league's juggernauts. I'll certainly be rooting for them to topple the AL's powerhouse teams and I expect them to at least snatch the last playoff spot.

4. Blue Jays
PECOTA: 75 wins
My pick: Under

Can't wait to watch Vladito face major league pitching. Besides Vladimir Guerrero Jr. the Jays have little else interesting going on at all except that they are very likely be better than the Orioles.

5. Orioles
PECOTA: 58 wins
My pick: Under

Don't even know how to evaluate this team. They won 47 games last year and that was with Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop in the lineup for half the season. Both are gone. Could they somehow be worse than 47 wins? The recent hiring of analytics guru Sig Mejdal, an engineering force behind the Astros behemoth, bodes well for the long-term future but much like the Astros tanked hard for years, the O's are looking at a stretch of 100-loss seasons.

AL Central

1. Indians
PECOTA: 97 wins
My pick: Under

The more things change, the more they stay the same in the AL Central. Earlier this decade, the Tigers reigned over a weak division with a stars-and-scrubs roster approach. Now the Indians are doing the same, having won three straight division titles with a top-heavy squad. The prognosis for the Tribe in 2019 remains the same. Constructed oddly similar to those Detroit teams, which consisted of an elite rotation, a couple of beastly sluggers in the lineup and little else, the Indians' rotation is among the very best in baseball while the offense is led by two elite sluggers. Only the Mets rotation could possibly match their top three of Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, and Carlos Carrasco, while fourth starter Mike Clevinger, sporting a 3.36 ERA thru his first 374 innings, would be the best starter on many teams in 2019. The fifth starter, Shane Bieber, had an elite K/BB ratio as a rookie last year and could also be very good. The offense is led by two extremely entertaining switch-hitting and speedy young sluggers, Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez. The homegrown duo of middle infielders have become two of the best hitters in the game. Both are also banged up to begin the season.

Having lost Michael Brantley to the Astros and traded away Edwin Encarnacion to the M's, there's not much depth behind Lindor and Ramirez. Despite playing in an abysmal division and fielding a championship core in its prime, the Indians have tried to cut corners wherever possible, patching holes with scrap heap finds like Hanley Ramirez, Brad Miller, and Kevin Plawecki. New addition Jake Bauers is an intriguing young player who showed great plate discipline in the minors and briefly caught fire in his MLB debut last year, but he ended up hitting .201 without the kind of power expected from a first base/corner outfield type. I think, at best, he could be what Yonder Alonso was for them last year. With only Brad Hand as a reliable late-inning option, the bullpen looks like it could be a weakness, much like those aforementioned Tigers teams. Even with the incredible pitching and two of the top five position players in baseball, the Indians are clearly in a tier below the AL's juggernauts---the Red Sox, Yankees, and Astros. Despite their glaring imperfections, the 2019 Indians will probably still win 95 games and are an easy lock for their fourth division crown in a row.

2. Twins
PECOTA: 82 wins
My pick: Over

Nelson Cruz is the kind of dependable and dominant slugger the Twins have not had for a very long time. They're a young team with plenty of potential for improvement or breakout and the addition of Cruz, to me, signals a potential for contention. Somebody's gotta make this division interesting for the Indians and I think the Twins have enough talent to do it this year. They've also got one of the game's most fascinating and entertaining players in rotund utility man Willians Astudillo, so I'll be watching their games no matter what.

3. White Sox
PECOTA: 70 wins
My pick: Over

They should be pretty bad, but with the pending arrival of Eloy Jimenez and potential improvement from Yoan Moncada and other young hitters, plus a bunch of veterans added to the rotation and bullpen, I think there's enough here for a fluky 77-win season.

4. Royals
PECOTA: 73 wins
My pick: Under

I like that they're trying something different, fielding three different 40-steal-level speedsters in the lineup with Billy Hamilton, Whit Merrifield and Adalberto Mondesi. Besides that the rest of the team looks terrible and boring, though.

5. Tigers
PECOTA: 66 wins
My pick: Under

I'm really hoping to see Miguel Cabrera return to good health so we can see him play out the final stage of his Hall of Fame career. He's sitting on 465 home runs for his career though he hasn't reached 20 in a season since 2016. The Tigers are in a rough period---they suck, they will likely trade away Nick Castellanos or anyone else who doesn't suck, and they're probably going to suck for a few more years after that. So I'm really hoping Detroit fans get to at least see Miggy get back to his old self for a few more years.

AL West

1. Astros
PECOTA: 98 wins
My pick: Over

Picking the over on 98 wins seems ludicrous, but this team is ludicrous. Even among baseball's juggernauts (the Yanks, Red Sox, Dodgers) the Astros stand out. PECOTA tends to be a pretty conservative projection system, so a 98-win projection---the highest in MLB---is nothing to sneeze at. And you can expect them to be fired up after steamrolling thru the league last year only to fall to the Red Sox in an epic ALCS.

Are there any weaknesses to the Stros? They're a little light at the catching position but that's a league-wide issue, many teams nowadays start catchers who can't hit a lick. They lost some very good starting pitchers in Dallas Keuchel (not re-signed), Charlie Morton (not re-signed), and Lance McCullers (injured) but they've got the best pitching prospect in baseball, Forrest Whitley, waiting in the wings and have seemingly patched up the holes in the rotation just fine with a couple guys from the bullpen (Brad Peacock and Colin McHugh) and a nifty free agent pickup (Wade Miley). They lost super-utility man Marwin Gonzalez, but replaced him with Aledmys Diaz who will probably be a better hitter though not quite as versatile a fielder. They still boast four uber-stars in the heart of the lineup with Bregman, Altuve, Correa, and Springer and free agent addition Michael Brantley seems like a perfect fit for this team. The deciding ALCS game between the Astros and Red Sox last October was likely the best baseball game I've ever watched in my life. A clash of the titans where every little micro-battle was hard-fought, down to the catchers taking extra precautions in concealing their signs and pitch locations. The Stros lost, just barely, and we can all expect to see them back in the playoffs this year battling it out with the Yanks and Red Sox again.

2. A's
PECOTA: 78 wins
My pick: Over

I love the A's, I love this current version of the A's and I look forward to watching and rooting for Oakland, my favorite AL team. However, I don't expect them to win 97 games again. Optimistically I'd have them in the 87-88 win range. I worry that last year's amazing team which had a quick playoff exit in the Bronx was as far as this version of the A's will go. The upper echelon of the AL is stacked to a ridiculous degree. Yes, the AL has a bunch of teams tanking, but the league's middle class is stuck scrounging for just one unclaimed playoff spot. It'd be the ultimate Moneyball sequel for Billy Beane's shit to ever work in the playoffs but getting there is a challenge in and of itself. There are 5 postseason spots available, 4 of them are virtually locked down by the Astros, Yanks, Indians, and Red Sox.

The A's succeeded last year despite a rash of starting pitcher injuries thanks to a deep bullpen and the entertaining combo of a powerful offense and excellent fielding. The bullpen, strong offense, and great defense are all pretty much intact, but the starting pitching somehow looks much worse. They're starting off from a worse place rotation-wise than they did last year, so any injuries or ineffectiveness will quickly expose their alarming lack of depth. I don't expect Marco Estrada to be very good for them but as a right-hander who relies entirely on timing, deception and an okay changeup, I dig watching him pursue his craft so I'm glad the A's signed him. I just don't get why they wouldn't spring for a Dallas Keuchel or Gio Gonzalez to shore up their most glaring weakness.

3. Mariners
PECOTA: 72 wins
My pick: Over

Better than everyone thinks. A weird hodgepodge of a team, they seemingly deconstructed and sold off their best players, yet the new Mr Potato Head roster Jerry DiPoto's machinations resulted in doesn't actually look that ugly to me. They've got plenty of pop in the middle of the lineup with Mitch Haniger, Jay Bruce, Edwin Encarnacion and a potential breakout candidate in Domingo Santana. Mallex Smith is an ideal leadoff hitter who draws walks and runs well. The pitching staff won't blow anybody away but, compared to the non-Astros rotations in their division, the M's rotation ain't all that bad. How incredible would it be if the Mariners go on a fluky run and finally break their playoff drought in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year? I wouldn't be terribly surprised.

4. Angels
PECOTA: 80 wins
My pick: Under

I really want to believe in this team, I would really love to see Mike Trout carry them back to the playoffs, but man it's hard to envision a path to success for this squad. Trout might be the best player in the history of the game, but he can't do it all himself and there just aren't many exciting hitters in the supporting cast here. Sure, Justin Upton is solid but his best years are in the past. Besides him there's Shohei Ohtani who I love just as much as everyone else does but he'll be DHing with a rehabbing elbow, so who knows how much he's actually going to play? Probably not enough to make a huge dent. The rotation is filled with #4 starters and the bullpen is made up of a bunch of nobodies. At some point in Trout's long, lucrative contract, the Halos will be a playoff team again but I don't see it happening in 2019.

5. Rangers
PECOTA: 70 wins
My pick: Under

Although they are among the AL's many floundering teams that don't have any shot at contention, they are at least fielding a team full of recognizable names. I didn't realize Shelby Miller and Edinson Volquez were still playing, but here they are. Drew Smyly will pitch for the first time since 2016. Pitch framing master Jeff Mathis will catch their old washed up staff. Asdrubal Cabrera gets to hit in a bandbox. And of course Joey Gallo will demolish many loud dongers in the Texas Rangers' final year at what they're now calling Globe Life Park, a perfectly fine 20-something-year-old ballpark which these greedy fucks had to replace with a new mallpark funded by taxpayers. In their final season at The Ballpark in Arlington, George W. Bush's former team is probably going to suck but at least they'll do it with a bunch of guys we're all familiar with and Joey Gallo launching loud home runs, so they won't be boring.

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