Believe it or not, baseball season has begun!
As we like to do at this time each spring, we’re offering our previews of both the American and National Leagues, focusing upon the “futures” (over/under total wins) recommendations, with the posted win totals included for every team.
AL EAST: BEST BET…While some of our scouts were watching the Baltimore Orioles (59½) this March in Sarasota, they commented how hard it was to tell between the AA, AAA, and Major Leaguers sprinkled throughout the roster. Such is life for a team that plummeted to a 47-115 mark last season. Not even Buck Showalter, who mostly got the Birds punching above their weight during his 8-year tenure in the dugout, could salvage respectability; Showalter and former GM Dan Duquette might be relieved their contracts weren’t renewed. What is left behind is a collection of odds and sods for new skipper Brandon Hyde, who will try to find some recipe among the recent minor leaguers, over-the-hill vets, and career backups on the roster. Nowhere to go but up for a pitching staff whose 5.13 ERA was the worst in the bigs…but we suppose it theoretically could get worse. On the field, beyond 2B Jonathan Villar, a potential All-Star, there’s not much else to recommend. Improving 13 wins appears a task far beyond these O’s, so it’s another “under” for us at Camden Yards, as we feel badly for Jim Palmer trying to make it sound interesting for fans of Orioles TV on MASN.
OTHERS: At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of value in the price on the Tampa Bay Rays (84½); then again, it’s easy to forget these guys won 90 games last season. The revolutionary approach to the starting rotation, when, on nights Cy Young winner Blake Snell didn’t start, manager Kevin Cash was likely to go with a bullpen-by-committee approach, by us was the stuff of genius and perhaps the key to small market franchises re-inventing themselves into contenders (if they do it as well as Tampa Bay did last season, that is). Aside from the nights when Snell and offseason addition Charlie Morton get the ball from Cash, the Rays likely go the same route this season. Note the 3.50 team ERA, third best in the bigs, after Cash began his use of “openers” in the rotation in late May. There remain questions with the offense, though LF Tommy Pham flashed real star potential after his deadline addition from St. Louis, and Avisail Garcia, over from the Chisox, should provide more consistent pop from the DH spot. We remain bullish on Tampa Bay; it’s an “over’ for us at the Trop, and can’t wait to hear one of our favorites, DeWayne Staats, describe the action on Fox Sports Sun.
The Yankee overhype is about to commence once more. Last year, 100 wins were not enough to overtake the Red Sox, but getting above the mid-90s in wins in 2019 might be problematic due to some durability questions in the rotation, beginning with aging CC Sabathia, who has already announced this will be his final campaign, while ex-Mariner James Paxton has a history of injury problems and has never pitched more than the 160 innings he hurled last season. Recent signee Gio Gonzalez could prove of better use. In the field, SS Didi Gregorius might be out until the All-Star break with an elbow injury. The Yanks will still mash aplenty with Aaron Hicks and Giancarlo Stanton, but if Aaron Boone is forced to mixand-match more than he would like in his rotation, the Yanks might not get to their lights-out bullpen as often to shut the door. The Pinstripes will still be very good, but we’re just not sure about 97 wins good; look “under” in the Bronx.
Some have maintained that last year’s Boston Red Sox (94½) were one of the best teams in decades. In retrospect, we wouldn’t argue, as 2018 was a marvelous intersection of pitching, hitting, defense, baserunning, you name it. So why are the Bosox expected to drop almost 14 wins from last year’s 108 and a World Series title? Beats us, because we think Boston still looks plenty good. About the only significant question is replacing closer Craig Kimbrel, who dominated a year ago. If the pen becomes a problem, GM Dave Dombrowski will not sit on his hands, as firemen (especially from non-contenders) are often available well before the deadline. And, besides, Ryan Brasier was so good as a set-up man that a switch to the closer role could go smoothly. Meanwhile, lefty ace Chris Sale is happy as a lark after signing a $150 million extension, Mookie Betts could well earn back-to-back MVPs, and J.D. Martinez proved a better fit than could have been dreamed at Fenway Park after leading the bigs with 130 RBI. Hey, what’s not to like? “Over” again at Fenway Park.
Where the Toronto Blue Jays (74½) fit into this East mix is anyone’s guess. The second stint for John Gibbons in the dugout featured a couple of ALCS appearances, but with the rebuild underway, Gibbons bowed out after last season, and now it’s Charlie Montoyo’s turn to steer the ship. The organization is building around the budding superstar that is 3B Vlad Guerrero, Jr., though we’ll have to wait a bit to see Vladdy Jr., who begins the season on the DL due to a strained oblique. Before the end of April, Vlad Jr. likely gets the call, but it’s going to be asking a lot for him to carry the load, even if he shined so brightly a year ago in AA and AAA. There are some other interesting pieces on the roster, but for the Jays we think it all comes down to keeping the rotation healthy; 1-2 starters Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez are more than able, but both barely pitched 100 innings a year ago and have had recurring durability issues, as has ex-Angel Matt Shoemaker, added in the offseason. Beyond not being sure how good Guerrero might be in his rookie year, questions in the rotation make Toronto hard to peg. We’ll simply pass at Rogers Centre while looking forward to Buck Martinez and his shock of now-grey hair describe the Vlad Jr. phenomenon on Rogers Sportsnet.
AL CENTRAL: BEST BET…Sometimes the best hints for an upcoming season can be found in the preceding September. That’s when the Kansas City Royals (69½) emerged as a capable spoiler last year after a mostly hideous campaign that for a time rivaled the Orioles as MLB’s worst. But there is good news; importantly, remember that KC competes in the forgiving AL Central, with one-third of its games to be played against the beatable Twins, Tigers, and Chisox. There’s a start. Further, adding speedburning CF Billy Hamilton from the Reds gives the Royals three of the top eight base stealers (along with 2B Whit Merrifield & SS Adalberto Mondesi) from last season. The potential disaster of losing C Salvador Perez (Tommy John surgery in spring) was saved by GM Dayton Moore’s clever addition of ex-Angel Martin Maldonado, who should provide a serviceable option behind the plate. Young hurlers Brad Keller and Jakob Junis bring a lot of heat and promise to the top of the rotation that could prove acceptable as long as vets Danny Duffy and Ian Kennedy stay healthy and reprise some of their better work from the past. No one is expecting a playoff berth, but getting to 70 wins in this division is hardly mission impossible; it’s an “over” for us at the Big K.
OTHERS: It wasn’t the sort of news a struggling team needs to hear. But after the Detroit Tigers (69) stumbled in at 64-98 a year ago, and things became so desultory that TV announcers Mario Impemba and Rod Allen got into a fight (both eventually dismissed, good news that the excellent Impemba quickly found work doing radio play-by-play for the Bosox; Allen was never one of our favorites in the analyst chair, but we digress), the last thing Ron Gardenhire needed was for his projected staff ace to go down for the count on the eve of the season. Yet, so it goes in Detroit after word last week that Michael Fulmer was done for 2019 with Tommy John surgery, the latest misfortune for the 2016 AL Rookie of the Year. Jordan Zimmerman, the Tigers’ last significant FA addition a couple of years ago, has resembled a batting tee for hitters and has become the opening-day starter almost by default. The Tigers hope that affordable vet FA signees Matt Moore and Tyson Ross can at least eat some innings in the rotation. Otherwise, it’s the middle of an extended rebuild in Motown, where the search for a couple of more foundational pieces like RF Nick Castellanos continues. Not too much to get excited about at Comerica Park, where it’s another “under” for us.
Given the recent condition of the Central, and considering they played almost half of their games within this weak division, the Cleveland Indians (91) should have done a bit better (a lot better?) than their 91-71 mark last season. Which is why we weren’t terribly surprised when the Astros swept out the Tribe in the ALDS. Still, 91 wins should be a floor, not a ceiling, especially with perhaps the AL’s best rotation, anchored by two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber. Along with Carlos Carrasco and last year’s breakout starter, Trevor Bauer, plus longhaired Mike Clevinger, Terry Francona had four starters record more than 200 strikeouts. What the Tigers would do for just one of these guys! There was some shuffling in the bullpen during the offseason, when Cody Allen and Andrew Miller were allowed to walk, but ex-Padre Brad Hand is a proven closer. There was a bit of a scare this past weekend at Goodyear when star 3B Jose Ramirez fouled a ball off his knee and had to be carted off; mind you, SS Francisco Lindor and 2B Jason Kipnis were already scheduled to open the season on the DL (though both likely reactivated in April). We’ll see if Ramirez joins them. At worst, that might mean a slower start for the Tribe, who should be able to regain complete command of the Central by the All-Star break. Almost by default, but we have to look “over” in Cleveland.
What has happened to the solid fundamentals that were not long ago the signature of the Minnesota Twins (84)? Certainly not a year ago, prompting some major changes, including manager Paul Molitor, replaced by Rocco Baldelli. For the first time in almost a generation, Joe Mauer (now retired) also isn’t part of the Minnesota mix. It looks like the Twins are simply going to try to bash their way back to playoffs, which they made as a wild card in 2017. Main offseason additions include the big bats of DH Nelson Cruz and 1B C.J. Cron, and with hope that FA 2B Jonathon Schoop reprises his 2017 All-Star form in Baltimore rather than the flop he was after the trade deadline in Milwaukee last summer. But CF Byron Buxton still struggles more than he should to make contact at the plate, while 3B Miguel Sano is always a threat to disrupt with his penchant for getting into off-field trouble. Meanwhile, aside from Jose Berrios and maybe Kyle Gibson at the top, Baldelli only seems to have high-risk options with his rotation. We sure don’t think the Twins rate 14-15 wins better than the Royals and will look “under” at Target Field, though as always will also be interested in what Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven have to say on Fox Sports North.
We were a bit surprised to see the Chicago White Sox (74) throw their hats into the ring in the bidding for top FAs Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. The Chisox didn’t land either, but their long-suffering fans on the South Side and elsewhere could take to heart those developments as statements of intent from a front office that is probably as tired as the support base of the incessant mediocrity in recent years. Now, is the rebuild really over? After winning just 62 games last year, we’re not prepared to go there just yet with the Pale Hose, but ballyhooed OF prospect Eloy Jimenez has an arrival date sometime this spring; speaking of intent, how about signing Jimenez for more than twice as much ($43 mill over six years!) as the Chisox have ever yet paid a player to perform in the bigs? With the touted Jimenez arriving soon, and SS Tim Anderson, 2B Yoan Moncada, and DH Jose Abreu already in place, there is some reason for optimism. What continues to threaten undermining the operation is pitching, with former top prospect Lucas Giolito highly erratic, top prospect Michael Kopech out with Tommy John surgery, and a supposed ace, Carlos Rodon, who made just 20 starts last season. The Pale Hose are excited about their newlysigned closer, ex-Royal Kelvin Herrera, but can they get to him with a lead often enough? We see some upside here, but not sure about a 12-win jump; it’s a “pass” for us at Guaranteed Rate Field, the latest in an uninspiring succession of stadium names for the once “new” Comiskey Park, now into its 30th season (really!).
by the Mariners in what amounted to an Ichiro farewell tour, the Oakland A’s (83½) are back in the US to begin their quest for a return to the playoffs after qualifying as the biggest surprise of MLB in 2018. The Raiders seemed a more likely playoff team a year ago than the A’s, but a collection of big bats and a deep bullpen allowed Bob Melvin to squeeze out 97 wins and a wild card. We’re not sure Oakland reaches those heights in 2019, but the floor for the A’s should be in the mid 80s, at least as long as underappreciated DH Khris Davis continues to bang out the homers (does anyone realize that Davis has hit 40 or more dingers each of the last three years?). An intriguing addition is ex-Ranger Jurickson Profar, a former No. 1 overall MLB prospect who is being plugged in at 2B. But it was all about the bullpen last summer for Melvin, with ex-Nat Blake Treinen becoming an elite closer with several bridges in front of him, all a necessity, as the starters rarely get past five innings. An amazingly constant supply of serviceable arms from AA and AAA, however, continue to fill in as needed with the annual injuries in the rotation, which pulled Edwin Jackson off the scrap heap with great results midway last season (Jackson remains unsigned late in March). The A’s usually cobble it together, part of the ongoing Billy Beane legacy. We’re looking “over” at the Coliseum.
OTHERS: Well, they’re happy as can be in Orange County and singing their favorite Disney tunes now that Mike Trout has signed a 12-year extension for Cristiano Ronaldo-type money, almost assuring that he’ll finish his career with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (82½). But Halo fans must be reminded this is real baseball, not rotisserie, and while Trout’s talents are enormous as he appears bound for Cooperstown, it’s worth noting that, as good as he has been, he has never yet been on an Angels team that won a playoff game. Should Arte Moreno have maybe spent that money on numerous players who instead might help the Halos win their first postseason game in what is now a decade? It will also take some getting used to not seeing Mike Scioscia in the dugout for the first time in 20 years; Scioscia quietly retired after last season, at odds with the organization’s new commitment to analytics, which new manager Brad Ausmus is reportedly embracing. The pitching staff still has a jerry-rigged look; Matt Harvey’s star has faded as he gets another shot, this time in Anaheim, along with journeyman Trevor Cahill, who appear a pair of risky anchors in the rotation alongside injury-prone Andrew Heaney. Trout, Justin Upton, Kole Calhoun, and even a past sell-by date Albert Pujols can generate runs, and Shohei Otani is slated to concentrate on DH and not pitch this season, though he opens on the DL. Were this rotisserie baseball, we’d be jumping for joy to have Trout, Upton, and others on our team, but in the real world, the best of Trout has been carrying too much of a burden and needs more help; it’s an “under” for us at the Big A.
With some dubious competition in the division, the Houston Astros (96½) should be able to clear this mid-90s win total after soaring to 103 wins a year ago. In the end, it wasn’t enough to successfully defend their 2017 World Series crown. But keep in mind how Houston piled up all of those Ws even with 2B Jose Altuve and SS Carlos Correa battling injuries last summer. The Astros lost a few pieces in the offseason, especially in their rotation, but compensated by adding LF Michael Brantley from Cleveland and C Robinson Chirinos from Texas. If there are questions, they might be regarding a staff that could have some issues beyond the dominant 1-2 starters Justin Verlander (just re-inked to a pricey extension) and Gerrit Cole, with the well-traveled Wade Miley likely to be one of those plugged in by A.J. Hinch. But if some of the pitching prospects are as good as advertised and are ready to deliver, the beat should go on in Houston. It’s a definite “over” for us at Minute Maid Park.
Hey, they’re already 2-0! We’re talking about the Seattle Mariners (71½), who beat the A’s twice in Japan last week as all paid a salute to Ichiro, who retired after the brief series. But the “Ichiro bump” was good for only two games. Now the Mariners must deal with the reality of the rest of their season with a roster that went through a massive revamp. Seattle moved almost every player who could generate interest (Robinson Cano, Jean Segura, Nelson Cruz, Mike Zunino, James Paxton, Edwin Diaz, Alex Colome) and might have a lineup with as many as six new starters, as GM Jerry Dipoto begins the rebuild. So even the handful of vets (3B-DH Edwin Encarnacion, OF Jay Bruce, SS Tim Beckman) who were added are likely to be used as trade bait at or before the deadline. Moreover, the staff is a mystery, hoping Japanese import Yusei Kikuchi can handle the top of a rotation that is also counting on journeymen like Mike Leake and Wade LeBlanc, while King Felix is a shell of his former dominant self. They’re preparing for the worst in Seattle, and so are we; it’s an “under” for us at Safeco Field…but the Mariners are 2-0!
It will take some getting used to seeing a Texas Rangers (71½) lineup without Adrian Beltre, who retired in the offseason en route to Cooperstown. Unlike the Mariners, however, we can envision the Rangers doing some things very well, like hitting homers and scoring runs. In LF Joey Gallo, Texas has the modern-day equivalent of Dave Kingman, swinging for the downs every at-bat; well over half of Gallo’s at bats resulted in a strikeout, a walk, or a homer last season! Joining Gallo in the power brigade is RF Nomar Mazara, while 2B Roughned Odor has turned into a dangerous at-bat. Adding Asdrubal Cabrera to take the place of Beltre at 3B was a shrewd move. But someone has to pitch, and new manager Chris Woodward might be looking for volunteers in a rotation full of stop-gaps and hurlers on their third or fourth chances. Closer Jose Leclerc might be a budding star in the bullpen, but how often can his set-up men deliver him a lead? It’s going to be a tag-team adventure in the Rangers bullpen. But Texas can score, which causes us to pause and simply pass at Globe Life Park, enjoying its last hurrah in 2019, as the new Globe Life (hopefully with the same food concessions and the 24-inch “Boomstick” hot dog that comes in its own carrying case!) opens across the street in 2020.
NL EAST: BEST BET…While the masses seem to be fawning over the Phillies (who we’ll get to in a moment) and their recently-signed Bryce Harper, the Atlanta Braves (86) seem to be getting overlooked. After all, it was the Braves, not the Phillies, who made the playoffs last season, out of the blue as it was at Sun Trust Park. Now, we might get an encore for 2018 NL Rookie of the Year LF Ronald Acuna, Jr., who might soon be as good as Harper. Atlanta has the enviable combination of youth and experienced talent with Acuna and 22-year old 2B Ozzie Albies, an All-Star a year ago (though he lost steam later in the summer). A worthwhile gamble might be the one-year deal given to former AL MVP 3B Josh Donaldson, who, if healthy, will definitely provide more cover in the lineup for Acuna and 1B Freddie Freeman. Meanwhile, liberating righty Kevin Gausman from Baltimore at the deadline last summer was a great bit of business as Gausman posted a 2.87 ERA in 59 2/3 IP. Along with Mike Foltynewicz, off of a career year (including a 2.85 ERA), plus hard-throwing Sean Newcomb and Julio Teheran, the staff looks better than the one in Philly, as well. A return to the playoffs for the Brav-os is certainly a possibility as we look “over” at Sun Trust.
OTHERS: Someone has to lose in the East, and once again appearing glad to oblige are the Miami Marlins (63). The new ownership group that includes Derek Jeter did not exactly get off on the right foot with the fan base by immediately shipping out all of the marketable commodities (Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna last year; C J.T. Realmuto, the closest to a star on 2018’s depleted roster, recently went to the Phils on Feb. 7, while capable closer Kyle Barraclough was sent to the Nats as new Miami management apparently doesn’t even mind helping to strengthen division rivals!) in a crass payroll dump for the open-ended rebuild. Which many in the region believe, with some justification, allows the new group to simply run the operation on the cheap and hope that MLB’s rising popularity also allows the value of the Miami franchise to increase and provide the consortium with a chance to return a nice profit in a few years. Good for the bottom line, perhaps, but not for the support base, which by this point is getting tired of being burned by the many Marlins fire-sales throughout their history. Thus, cut-rate offseason vet additions 2B Neil Walker and OF Curtis Granderson immediately loom as trade bait. If there’s a bit of hope, it’s perhaps in a rotation where young arms Jose Urena and Caleb Smith (before injury) impressed. Once they get good, however, and close to the point they’ll cost the Marlins some real money, they’re probably trade bait, too. We can’t do anything else other than look “under” in Miami.
Apparently no longer content to sit back and let the Yankees steal all of the local headlines, the New York Mets (85½) got real aggressive in the offseason. New GM Brodie Van Wagenen shook things up, alright, trying to bolster the lineup by adding C Wilson Ramos, 3B Jed Lowrie, and 2B Robinson Cano, who returns to the Big Apple after a several-season exile in Seattle, plus adding another ex-Mariner in Edwin Diaz, slated as the new closer for 2nd-year manager Mickey Callaway. It is worth noting, however, that the Mets are being asked to improve nearly ten games from last year’s 77 wins in a division that aside from Miami is decidedly strong. It is a bit tantalizing, however, to envision Noah Syndergaard healthy once again and teaming with last year’s NL Cy Young winner Jacon deGrom at the top of the rotation. No matter, we’re still looking “under” at Citi Field.
While the masses seem to be focusing most of their attention in the East upon the Phils and Mets, we have to wonder if the sans-Bryce Harper Washington Nationals (89) are being a bit overlooked. The core is still solid; even minus Harper, an outfield of last year’s comet Juan Soto, another young star in Victor Robles, and Adam Eaton might be as good as any in the NL. Meanwhile, the left side of the infield is stacked with 3B Anthony Rendon and SS Trae Turner, looking for a third straight year of 40 or more steals. Vet 2B Brian Dozier, over from the Dodgers, will hopefully provide the sort of production that Daniel Murphy did a few years ago. Plus, there’s the terrifying duo at the top of the rotation in Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, while ex-Diamondbacks lefty Patrick Corbin was the top available starting pitcher in the FA crop. Now, if manager Dave Martinez can’t make this mix work by midseason, should Mike Scioscia be on GM Mike Rizzo’s speed-dial? “Over” at Nats Park, where we hope to visit this season and, as always, will enjoy one of those incomparable chili half-smokes from one of the Ben’s Chili Bowl locations at the ballpark.
Are we leaving the best for last in the East? We’re not sure with the Philadelphia Phillies (89), who are generating an awful lot of buzz for a team that only won 80 games last season. Of course, the main reason for the newfound attention is the addition of RF Bryce Harper, who moves up I-95 from D.C. and the Nats with a new mega-contract; does Harper realize what he’s in for from the Philly fan base if he goes into a slump? But even before the recent signing of Harper, the Phils made some notable upgrades with SS Jean Segura and C J.T. Realmuto, while it is hoped that OF Andrew McCutchen, on the downside of his career, can still provide some spark and leadership. The various offseason moves have also allowed Rhys Hoskins to move to his natural 1B position from the outfield. And there’s a potential Cy Young winner (Aaron Nola) at the top of the rotation. But beyond perhaps Jake Arrieta, there are some questions with starters 3 thru 5. And let’s just say that manager Gabe Kapler puzzled some onlookers with various moves and strategies in his debut a year ago. The bar has been set pretty high in Philly, and we think this could go either way; it’s a pass for us at CBP. Though, when we have the chance, we’ll tune into WIP 94.1 FM on the web to find out what they’re saying in Philly (we can already guess, but we’ll listen nonetheless).
NL CENTRAL: BEST BET… While it took a while for the baseball offseason to sort itself out, one of the key moves was done as they usually are around the winter meetings, when the St. Louis Cardinals (88) made a deal with the D-backs for 1B Paul Goldschmidt, a consistent power producer and annual MVP threat, not to mention an All-Star four years running. By us, we think this might be the best offseason addition of any team in the NL, including the Phils with Bryce Harper. And, like past players such as Jim Edmonds and Matt Holliday that were impressed by the organization and fan base in St. Louis, “Goldy” immediately inked a $130 mill extension. Adding Goldschmidt also allows Matt Carpenter to move back to his more-natural 3B. Meanwhile, young CF Harrison Bader could emerge as a breakout star. Like many teams, a healthy rotation is no guarantee, but if the Big Red gets some luck in that regard, the makings of a solid staff are in place with Carlos Martinez and last year’s sensation Miles Mikolas, all in front of fireballing closer Jordan Hicks. Lefty Andrew Miller, not long ago the best set-up man in the game, was also added in the offseason. Total it up, and we think this is the team to beat in the Central, so it’s an “over” for us at Busch Stadium.
OTHERS: The Cincinnati Reds (78½) just can’t seem to catch a break. Key 2B Scooter Gennett, off a 23-homer, 92-RBI season and first All-Star trip, suffered a strained groin on a routine play last Friday in Cactus League action vs. the Brewers and will be lost for 2-3 months. Hardly the sort of news that new manager David Bell needs to hear, as hopes have risen in the Queen City despite winning only 67 a year ago. Cincy thought it made some upgrades in the offseason, dealing with the old enemy Dodgers, though in reality we’ll see if the diva acts of OFs Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig disrupt the clubhouse, or if they really help protect Joey Votto in the batting order. No longer waiting for the farm system to deliver another not-ready-for-primetime option to the rotation, GM Nick Krall went into the marketplace for needed help, and a new-look rotation features ex-Nat Tanner Roark and ex-Dodger Alex Wood to go along with last summer’s addition Sonny Gray. We applaud those pitching moves in particular. Gennett’s injury, however, will test Cincy’s depth, and pitching has been so suspect in Cincy for so long that we need to see improvement before we believe it. For now it’s an “under” at Great American Ballpark, and we can only imagine how cranky vet play-play-play man Marty Brennaman might become on Reds radio, or how he’ll respond if Kemp and Puig begin to act up.
They were the NL’s answer to the Oakland A’s last season, as no one was expecting the Milwaukee Brewers (86½) to make the sort of breakthrough they did, beating the Cubs in a playoff for the Central title and then advancing to the NLCS before a bitter 7-game exit courtesy the Dodgers. But no reason the good times shouldn’t roll again in Milwaukee, especially after addressing the concerns at catcher by adding ex-Dodger Yasmani Grandal in free agency. Grandal appears a major upgrade from last year’s duo of Manny Pina and Erik Kratz (since dealt to the Giants). Last year’s OF additions of Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain proved a boon to the Brew Crew, who also proved they’re in win-now mode by moving aggressively at the deadline last year (Mike Moustakas and Jonathon Schoop, though the latter didn’t help as much as expected). The key to a playoff return, however, remains a deep bullpen with dual closer options in Josh Hader and Corey Knebel. The staff lucked out that journeyman Jhoulys Chacin (15 wins!) emerged as an ace, but as long as Craig Counsell gets the same sort of work from his relievers, he can live with modest results from his starters. It’s an “over” for us at Miller Park, and we advise listening to the Brewers on Sirius radio while we can still enjoy the one and only Bob Uecker behind the microphone.
The budding dynasty of the Chicago Cubs (88½) has not yet materialized beyond that 2016 World Series win. Though it has been nonetheless been a notable era for the Cubs, who have made the playoffs four straight years (a franchise record) since Joe Maddon took over in the dugout in 2015. But the Cubs have dealt away a lot of prospects in recent years, and that might come back to bite them at some point soon. The bloom did seem to come off last October when, on successive days at Wrigley Field, the Cubs lost the NL Central playoff to the Brewers and then the wild card game vs. the Rockies. This after the addition of lefty hurler Yu Darvish turned into a non-event with his elbow surgery following just 40 IP as a Cub. A healthy Darvish could still team with Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and Cole Hamels for one of the NL’s best rotations. But the offense needs a healthy 3B Kris Bryant after he was diminished by a shoulder injury last season and being a far cry from his 2016 MVP form. Now, SS Javier Baez, off a 34-homer year, might be the center point of the offense. Expect Maddon to make good use of ex-Diamondback Daniel Descalso, who plays a variety of positions. We’re just not sure which direction this goes at Wrigley, so we’re going to pass instead.
Anyone who ever wondered about Clint Hurdle’s capabilities as a manager should have paid attention to last year’s Pittsburgh Pirates (77½), who surprisingly stayed on the fringe of the NL playoff race until deep into September and finished at 82-79, which should have qualified Hurdle for some Manager of the Year votes. But with few reinforcements in the offseason, Hurdle is going to be hard-pressed to wave that sort of magic wand again. Already, RF Gregory Polanco is on the shelf with a shoulder injury (the same one suffered last September) that likely keeps him out for at least a month. There’s also a new look up the middle, where last year’s double-play combo of Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer has been replaced by well-traveled 2B Adam Frazier and young SS Kevin Newman, who got a brief look last September. Not sure that‘s an upgrade. The staff should be a strength, especially if ex-Ray Chris Archer can rediscover his best Tampa Bay form after disappointing following his addition at the deadline. Jameson Taillon and Trevor Williams, however, look solid at the top of the rotation, while Hurdle and pitching guru Ray Searage have plenty of live arms in the bullpen. It’s that pitching which gives the Bucs a chance, but it’s got to be good, because this offense isn’t going to score many runs. Hurdle will be doing well once again to get Pittsburgh to .500, but at this price we’re thinking it’s best to just take a pass at PNC Park.
NL WEST: BEST BET…So much for the long-held belief that the Colorado Rockies (84½) were never going to have enough pinching to win. Since Bud Black came in as manager, that’s all changed in Denver, as the Rocks have gone to the playoffs in back-to-back years mostly because their staff has been so solid. In fact, starters Kyle Freelund and German Marquez combined for 31 wins last season, with Freelund posting a 2.85 ERA. (A Colorado starter with a 2.85 ERA? Sheesh!) There still isn’t a left side of an infield in the NL with more pop than the Rocks have with 3B Nolan Arenado and SS Trevor Story, while it is hoped that adding vet Daniel Murphy (slated to start at 1B) will see his career jump-start at Coors Field. Which is known to do that for hitters. Colorado will have a shot at a third straight playoffs, which is three more than the Broncos have had the past three seasons, so we look “over” in Denver.
Sources have told us that there is so much talent in the Los Angeles Dodgers (93) system that the Blue should be able to stay a contender for the next 5-6 years. Will the Dodgers eventually get to 10 or more NL West titles in a row (it’s six and counting now) before one of the division foes finally rises up and says enough is enough? For the purposes of this piece, however, we only concern outselves with exceeding, or falling short, of those projected 93 wins. We’re not sure, as LA fell just short of that a season ago, and that was before some semi-serious housecleaning in the offseason. Though we don’t think the Dodgers will miss Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig, we’re also not sure new CF AJ Pollock, who has battled injuries the past couple of years, will be an upgrade. The staff is still solid, though all indicators are that Clayton Kershaw (who has also landed on the DL more often the past couple of years) is no longer nonpareil on the mound after losing more than a bit of his velocity last season. Elsewhere the rotation is filled with components who have had injury issues or, in the case of new ace Walker Buehler, is working on a restrictive season-long innings count. Getting past 93 wins might be as tough as it was a year ago, so we look “under” at Chavez Ravine.
Here’s our suggestion to the San Diego Padres (78½); ditch those drab blueand-white uniforms that lack originality, and go back to the old “taco” look. We don’t mean those poor facsimiles worn on Friday night home games the past couple of years, either. We mean full time to the dark brown, yellow and orange, and with the white shoes, to boot! After all, it’s time to forget the past 20 years or so and harken a new era at Petco Park with the FA signing of 3B Manny Machado, who shocked the world when inking with the Friars last month. But this might signal a change of fortunes for this moribund franchise that believes it has talent in the pipeline ready to deliver. One of those emerging young stars, 2B Fernando Tatis, Jr., could arrive soon, though in the meantime vet Ian Kinsler, a valued jack-of-all-trades, should prove a useful stop-gap for manager Andy Green. The outfield also features promising system products who now have MLB experience under their belts, with Manuel Margot in center and Hunter Renfroe in right. Pitching is an issue, though Joey Lucchesi proved a revelation last season, and young Eric Lauer has earned the opening day start. If these various pieces mesh, the Pads might give their long-suffering fans a playoff chase to cheer about for the first time in a decade. Padres? Playoffs? We’re looking “over” at Petco.
This will be the final lap around the track for San Francisco Giants (73½) manager Bruce Bochy, who has announced he’ll hang ‘em up at the end of the season. We wonder, however, if Bochy might push the date forward if the Giants struggle again, as we suspect. San Francisco is 54 games under .500 the past two seasons, and if this campaign is going sideways, as some anticipate, will Bochy really want to stick around until September? San Francisco’s lineup is old and didn’t add much in the offseason; the offense looks a mess, especially with Buster Posey coming off hip surgery. Hard as it is to believe, 3B Evan Longoria is now on the downside of his career (where did the years go?). And there is no chance the Giants threaten the mid 70s in wins if Madison Bumgarner goes on the shelf, as he has for extended periods the past two years; there isn’t much depth in the staff, either, and doubt offseason addition Drew Pomeranz, looking to revive his career, proves a significant boost. The only mystery in SF is if Bochy will want to stick around for the inevitable testimonials in September, which could ring a bit hollow if SF is sitting far outside the playoff chase. It’s an “under” at what they now call Oracle Park, though as long as Jon Miller, Dave Fleming, Duane Kuiper, and Mike Krukow are doing the their post-game “Giants roundtable” on blowtorch KNBR 680, it’s must-hear stuff…even when the Giants lose.
And then there were the Arizona Diamondbacks (75½), an opportunity missed the past couple of seasons when it looked like a contender was being assembled in Phoenix. The breakthrough playoff season of 2017 raised hopes almost as quickly as they became dashed a year ago, as Arizona fell to 82-80. Which preceded an offseason roster revamp that got rid of stalwarts such as Paul Goldschmidt, AJ Pollock, and Patrick Corbin. The departures of Goldy and Pollock have caused position switches, with 3B Jake Lamb now slotted into 1B and Ketel Marte moved from SS to Pollock’s old spot in CF. So there could be defensive questions as well as at the plate. Then there is the pitching, as skipper Torey Lovullo is crossing his fingers that Zack Greinke’s slight drop in velocity a year ago doesn’t presage a steeper descent in 2019, while Robbie Ray had significant control issues last season. At least the bullpen, with newlyadded closer and former All-Star Greg Holland, plus colorful, bearded set-up man Archie Bradley, looks durable. The win total has been reduced, and it’s possible that Arizona can exceed the mid 70s in victories. But with a new-look roster, it’s hard to be bullish; we’ll simply pass instead at Chase Field.