Saturday, March 30, 2019

MLB 2019 Predictions, Part 2

Brodie Van Wagenen and the Mets' newest stars, Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz. And that other guy. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Whereas picking the American League winners is a little boring because the difference between the haves and the have-nots is so stark, the National League in 2019 has the potential for all kinds of surprises. Besides the Marlins, Giants, and Diamondbacks, every team has some potential playoff to be in the playoff mix. The October 2019 standings in the NL Central can be scrambled any which way looking at it from now. Same with the NL East (leaving aside the Marlins). It's tough to make a final determination on how things will end up here but this entire exercise is completely meaningless anyway so let's have fun with it.

(PECOTA projections from here)

National League

NL East

1. Mets
PECOTA: 87 wins
My pick: Over

Hiring a former agent with no front office experience to be their new GM initially seemed like an odd, potentially disastrous move for the Mets. When he immediately pulled off a huge trade adding two superstars, then built up an impressively deep and versatile roster, I became a believer in Brodie Van Wagenen. (His hiring of renowned stats guru Russell Carlton away from Baseball Prospectus officially confirmed my faith in Brodie.) The Mets had found a GM who clearly understood the urgency to win right now with this team in New York. The core of this team is ripe to win now. Jacob deGrom is in his prime, his historically dominant 2018 season took place at age 30. Thor is 26 years old now. Zack Wheeler is 28. Their homegrown hitters like Michael Conforto (26), Brandon Nimmo (26), and Jeff McNeil (turning 27) are all in the sweet spots of their aging curves. Supplementing that core with the additions of veterans Robinson Cano, Jed Lowrie, and Wilson Ramos, a trio that would form a solid middle of any lineup, was the kind of bold, exciting front office wheeling and dealing Mets fans hadn't seen in a while.

The GM Brodie openly boasted about his team often this offseason, feeling certain that the new-and-improved Mets were the favorite to win the NL East, a division where the Phillies just spent truckloads of money adding All Stars, the young Braves just won the division after laying a fucking clobbering on the Mets with 13 wins in 19 games last year, and the Nats had also improved and had been clobbering the Mets for years now, too. In what's being called "the division of death" this year, these four teams could potentially all win 90 games. Nothing is going to come easy in this division. Despite so much competition, I believe Brodie that the Mets are the favorites here and not just because I'm an overly optimistic Mets fan (although I definitely am that). I think Brodie correctly identified and acted on the urgency of now, while the Mets have perhaps the best rotation in baseball, to bulk up the lineup with both star talent and versatile depth,  and to bolster the flagging bullpen. The addition of Edwin Diaz to anchor that pen was an enormous move for the Mets. They also brought back Jeurys Familia who has been by far the Mets' best relief pitcher the last few years, but take a look at Familia's and Diaz's numbers next to each other and you start to understand the magnitude of how dominant a force Edwin Diaz is.

Familia, 2016-2018:   25.4 K%, 10.8 BB%, .220 opponents' average, 3.35 ERA 
Diaz, 2016-2018:       38.9 K%, 8.2 BB%, .189 opponents' average, 2.67 ERA

Diaz struck out 44% of batters last year, the 7th most in a season ever. It's going to be interesting to watch how the Mets opt to deploy Diaz, whether they stash him for just the 9th or bring him in for high leverage situations. The division is definitely stacked and every win will matter this year. As a diehard Mets fan I'm thrilled as ever with the way the team has been constructed, especially in the bullpen. Edwin Diaz is Aroldis Chapman without the walks. And he could be the deciding factor in the NL East's tightly competitive four-team battle this year.

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

Much as I dislike the Phils, I can admit they had a fantastic offseason. Their new lineup looks impressive. Adding JT Realmuto, Jean Segura, Andrew McCutcheon, and Bryce friggin Harper to a lineup that had Rhys Hoskins in it makes for a pretty huge shift in the Phillies' outlook. The Phils scored 677 runs last year. PECOTA, a very conservative projection system, has them scoring 751 runs in 2019. That 80 run difference would make for an 8 win upgrade over what was an 80-win team in 2018. Plus they added a steadily dominant reliever, David Robertson, to the back of a bullpen that was pretty solid last year. On the other hand, the Philly rotation, while fronted by a true ace in Aaron Nola, doesn't quite match that of the Mets or the Nationals. And this will not be a good defensive team. Those imperfections might be the only things keeping the Phils from running away from the pack this year.

3. Nationals
PECOTA: 89 wins
My pick: Under

In the Baseball Prospectus annual, every player gets a projection for the upcoming year based on comparable players to their statistical profile. There's a number of interesting player comps that appear throughout the book, but my favorite might be Juan Soto having Bryce Harper as his top comp (this is an entirely objective, numbers-based projection, mind you). So it almost seems like the Nats had Harper 2.0 ready for the day Harper 1.0 went off to sign a huge free-agent contract. With top prospect Victor Robles added to the lineup full-time this season (he had a .874 OPS in limited major league time last year), plus the expensive addition of free agent lefty starter Patrick Corbin (who had a breakout year in 2018 with a 3.15 ERA and 5.9 WAR in 200 innings) to the already strong rotation, and a few other lesser additions, now it looks like the Nationals are actually an improved team despite losing their most famous player.

With Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, Adam Eaton, and especially the imposing heat slingers atop the rotation, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, there is plenty of star level talent left on this roster. But the Nats are perennial underachievers and I neither hope nor expect things to work out for them this season. In fact, I say: Fuck the Nats.

4. Braves
PECOTA: 85 wins
My pick: Under

When a team has a special player like Ronald Acuña (speaking of BP player comps, his top two are Mike Trout and Bryce Harper) it's a little harder to evaluate them because that one special player could easily bust out for an MVP season and carry the team to the playoffs. I would not be surprised to see that happen. The Braves have perhaps the best first baseman in baseball in Freddie Freeman, plus they've added a former MVP in Josh Donaldson to a roster that has plenty of young players on the come-up like Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Johan Camargo, and the still-improving Acuña.

I watched this energetic young team embarrass the Mets on multiple occasions last year including a three-game sweep in Queens where the Braves outscored the Mets by a total of 21-2. They are not to be underestimated. That said, I think they are due for some descent back down to earth this season. Way too many things went perfectly right for them last year such that they jumped ahead of their expected cycle of contention and were very good very early. They came out of nowhere. Some regression to the mean seems inevitable. And the division around them has improved significantly.

5. Marlins
PECOTA: 67 wins
My pick: Under

The 90-win potential of the top four teams in this division means it's possible the Marlins could lose as many games as the 47-115 Orioles did last year. Even with beautiful human being Curtis Granderson on their team, it ain't gonna be pretty for the Marlins this year. Their new jerseys ain't pretty either, in fact they're lame. This whole organization is lame. And starting pitcher Jose Ureña is an asshole for repeatedly throwing fastballs in the direction of Ronald Acuña's head last year. Fuck this team. (I'm usually not such a hater of the Mets opponents but this year I've got plenty reasons to dislike all four of their fellow NL East teams. Should definitely make for an interesting year.)

NL Central

1. Brewers
PECOTA: 88 wins
My pick: Over

Love me some Brew Crew. Their young GM David Stearns has showed a creative approach to building his roster, combining expensive superstars like Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, and Yasmani Grandal with shrewd moves on the margins like getting Travis Shaw, Jesus Aguilar, and Eric Thames. The result is a fascinating team to observe. They slough tradition in many ways and I love that kinda thing. That's how you extract more out of a roster than the sum of its parts. For instance, the Brewers, on paper, might very well have the worst starting rotation in their division. But they've been at the cutting edge with the Rays and A's when it comes to creatively deploying their bullpen, lessening the load on their starters. They've also got an excellent defensive team and their pickup of Yasmani Grandal, one of the best pitch-framers in all of baseball, will make a huge difference for their pitching staff.

With a roster that looks absolutely stacked, featuring the reigning MVP Yelich and a deep cast of sluggers (they could easily have 9 hitters who knock 20 homers this year), an excellent defense, one of the game's most dominant closers, and a decision-making apparatus that has proven it will think outside the box in order to get the most out of their group of players, it's hard to find a reason to doubt this team. They came very close to making the World Series last year and I suspect they'll be in the mix for the NL pennant again in 2019.

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

I am not buying the doom and gloom surrounding the Cubs. Yes, they had a very quiet offseason and didn't try to improve their roster all that much. And yes, they had a very loud, ugly offseason away from the field as it was revealed that their principal owner is a racist asshole. The actual team they go into the 2019 season with is still one of the best in the National League. They've still got the imposing core of sluggers Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and with last year's explosive breakout from Javier Baez, that core looks even more scary. They've still got a Swiss Army knife roster, vastly configurable and deep, with a wily professor Joe Maddon pressing the buttons.

They've been getting lots of flack for having an old pitching staff and, sure, that is true. But this is exactly what the Cubs wanted---it's by design. The approach of the Theo Epstein Cubs regime has been to develop homegrown hitters in the farm system and then go out and add veteran pitchers in the market. Many teams approach team-building in an almost entirely opposite manner, but the Cubs have money to afford veteran pitching so this is what they do. Occasionally a Tyler Chatwood type of disaster happens (negative-2.4 WAR in 20 starts last year while being paid $12.5 million). Guys like left-handers Jon Lester and Cole Hamels are in their mid-30s and could fall apart, but they've been two of the most dependable, durable starters in baseball for many years now. By virtue of their recent histories they're as likely to pitch full seasons with above-average numbers as anyone else out there. The other lefty, Jose Quintana, was shaky in his first full season with the Cubbies, but even in a terrible season he was an above-average starter (106 ERA+). He could very well improve this year. Yu Darvish disappeared early on last season, but he's back to being healthy this spring---a full season in the Cubs' rotation for Yu will make a huge difference. And then there's Kyle Hendricks who had his worst season last year and was still 25% better than league average (125 ERA+) and owns a career ERA barely above 3. In short, the pitching does not have to suck. And the defense is still great. The offense is as loaded as ever. In a division that could end up any which way, I expect the Cubbies to finish near the top.

3. Cardinals
PECOTA: 86 wins
My pick: Over

I'll keep this short: Paul Goldschmidt is a perfect fit. The Cardinal have been trying to acquire an elite-level hitter for a little while now (they were notoriously rebuffed by Giancarlo Stanton last winter) and they have acquired the perfect franchise hitter for their organization.

4. Reds
PECOTA: 81 wins
My pick: Over

A mediocre team that actually pulled out all the stops to try to build a winner? Imagine that! It's become commonplace in MLB lately to disassemble middling teams in order to tank for draft picks. It would not have been a surprise if the Reds decided to do exactly that, especially in such a crowded, competitive division. Instead, they made some big moves that significantly improved their team. They added a couple well-known slugging outfielders in Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig. And they completely revamped their abysmal rotation, adding Sonny Gray, Alex Wood, and Tanner Roark.

What they've put together here is a perfectly average team and that's not actually such a bad place to be. With some luck this .500ish team could be competing for a playoff spot. There's another factor here that might make them even more likely to surprise people---they've got 2 elite hitting prospects ready to join the lineup this season. They'll just need to find spots for them in what is already a crowded roster. Jesse Winker seems to have left field locked down, as well he should since he got on base at a .405 clip last year in his rookie season. Nick Senzel, a top-10 prospect going into 2019, is expected to be used all over the diamond for the Reds. He's done nothing but mash in every stop in the minors (.904 career OPS in three minor league seasons) and PECOTA projects him to be an above-average MLB hitter with plenty of power. There's so much firepower here and I dig the improved rotation, such that I want to be daring and place them near the top of the division but the other teams are just too damn good.

5. Pirates
PECOTA: 80 wins
My pick: Under

Unlike the Reds, the Pirates pretty much declined to try to build up their roster over the winter. I'm not a Pirates fan but I do get to stay with family each spring at a condo in Bradenton, Florida right near the Pirates spring training facility so I've seen them play many times and been around their loyal fans. You'd be surprised at the level of devoted fanhood among some Pittsburgh Pirates fans. These loyal supporters deserve better.

The Pirates have a gaping hole at the SS position. Even if they weren't gonna spring for the big money guy like Manny Machado to fill that spot, couldn't they have at least picked up Jose Iglesias? I puzzled over this all offseason. Maybe it's because I love watching Iglesias play defense that it especially annoyed me. Iglesias would've been a perfect fit and enhanced this team's watchability. What makes their lack of urgency to improve the team so frustrating is that they've actually got a solid core here. The outfield trio of Gregory Polanco, Starling Marte, and Corey Dickerson is among the best outfields in baseball. They've got a couple very good starters atop the rotation in right-handers Chris Archer and Jameson Taillon, plus a few guys who are okay enough to make this an above-average rotation. The bullpen is a strength, led by flame-throwing lefty Felipe Vazquez and flame-throwing righty Keone Kela, plus intriguing arms like Kyle Crick and Michael Feliz. They've got enough to finish over .500 with this bunch, but why the hell wouldn't they try to make that the worst case scenario? Because baseball owners are greedy fucks, that's why.

NL West

1. Dodgers
PECOTA: 93 wins
My pick: Over

This projection is shockingly low to me. Coming off two straight NL pennants, they're still the best team in the National League. They made a bunch of moves in the offseason that probably amounted to only a marginal upgrade, but they had the run differential of a 102-win team last year. They're still right there with the Astros, Yankees and Red Sox as the best teams in baseball.

2. Rockies
PECOTA: 84 wins
My pick: Over

All in all this could be the best Rockies team ever, too bad they've been stuck in a division with a 100-win powerhouse. The Rockies team configuration has taken a strange turn the last couple years as they've succeeded mainly due to their pitching being very good, while the offense has been sub-par overall when you adjust for their ballpark. The addition of Daniel Murphy, a line-drive gap hitter, could prove a perfect fit for the vast outfield pastures of Coors Field. Strong production from Murph could be enough to augment the Arenado and Blackmon and Trevor Story core and launch this team into a Wild Card spot if they maintain their unprecedented pitching success.

3. Padres
PECOTA: 81 wins
My pick: Over

The arrival of Fernando Tatis Jr and Manny Machado in San Diego playing for the Padres is great for this city. I lived in San Diego for a few years and followed the Padres closely. I'm happy for this city and its fans to have two such exciting and dynamic young stars dedicated to the franchise long term. Should be a fun year in San Diego but there's not enough of a full team here to compete yet. The pitching seems a little shaky. I'm really excited to watch their top pitching prospect Chris Paddack, who (just like Tatis Jr.) skipped triple-A entirely after posting a ridiculous 230/20 K/BB ratio in the minors and will be a part of the major league rotation this year.

4. D'Backs
PECOTA: 81 wins
My pick: Under

Despite losing their best hitter, this roster as it currently looks on paper could probably finish at or around .500 but I've got a feeling they will start off slow they'll start trading off pieces and then just full-on tank.

5. Giants
PECOTA: 72 wins
My pick: Under

It's kind of a bummer to see the Giants projected to be so bad in what will be Bruce Bochy's final season at the helm. At least they aren't completely tanking. They apparently made some effort to try to land Bryce Harper over the winter. And the roster is at least composed of players we've heard of. For that reason alone, I guess there has to be some minuscule sliver of possibility that the Giants shock us all and stay in contention all year long.

The long term prospects are certainly promising now that they've hired Farhan Zaidi as their new GM. Zaidi was a key figure in building the Oakland A's teams that went to the playoffs in 2012-2014 and just jumped ship from the helm of the rival Dodgers where he was instrumental in their pennant-winning successes the last few years. Who knows, if the Giants manage to hang around .500 with their veteran roster this year maybe Zaidi fortifies the team with some midseason trades. It seems more likely that this team, though composed of recognizable names, is not capable of hanging with the rest of the National League where so many teams have bulked up to enter the competitive fray.

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