Answering the MLB’s Biggest Questions Heading Into 2019

After an incredibly slow and extended offseason, Opening Day feels like it came really fast.  I mean, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado signed well into Spring Training, and quality players like Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel are still available.

Opening Day came so fast that it led me to put this column together in less than 24 hours, and unfortunately led me to abandon the annual PECOTA over/under column.  We still rely on PECOTA quite a bit throughout this season preview, and rip into a bit more than usual.  I think it just lost it’s mind with the NL.  But before we get there, we start with certainly the less entertaining league.

Can anyone make the AL Central more competitive?

What has steadily been the worst division in baseball for the past three seasons or so only got worse over the winter.  This is not the same Cleveland Indians roster that we’ve been accustom to since their 2016 World Series run.  The bullpen, a mighty force in years past, has gone through a complete overall.  Michael Brantley is now a Houston Astro, Yan Gomes a Washington National.

Some things are still the same.  Jason Kipnis is projected to be a non-contributor, with his health playing the biggest role in that, but even if the long-time second baseman was healthy, it would be hard to count on him.  Kipnis has completely plummeted the last two seasons, putting up a slash line of .231/.306/.704 with an OPS+ of 86 over 2017-2018.  The Indians still feel an outfielder short; Tyler Naquin’s my boy, but Jake Bauers struggled immensely last season, and it seems unlikely that Leoyns Martin, someone who’s great as a fourth outfielder but not so much a starter, can replicate the hitting he put together in 2018.  Cleveland has the prospectus of Bradley Zimmer to bank on, but he’s coming off a serious shoulder surgery and may not be 100 percent immediately.

Injuries have murdered the infield in addition to Kipnis.  Francisco Lindor won’t be available Opening Day due to now a multitude of injuries, and Jose Ramirez took a bad foul ball of his leg in one of the last Spring Training games of the year.  He’s supposed to be in the lineup today, so Cleveland dodged a bullet there.  But the preseason injury bug has set a bad omen for the Indians, and could lead them out to a poor start.

Whether it’s in the first few months or throughout the whole season, Cleveland will have to rely on their pitching once again.  Last year, half of their staff failed them.  The rotation was fantastic, and should be again this year, but the bullpen didn’t hold up its end.  It should be better this year; Brad Hand looked worth Francisco Mejia last season.  Adam Climber will hopefully rebound back into his Padres-self.  Jonathan Edwards was ridiculous last season despite some control issues.  They need Dan Otero to regain his stuff, but it’s possible that at age 34 his prime is well-past, especially since Oliver Perez is bound for regression after a shockingly good 2018 campaign.

The Indians are fine.  In this division, that’s okay.  But the 97 wins PECOTA projected them for is an impossible feat.  They could easily finish ten below that total and win the division.  Or could easily win 93 games.  That will depend on if anyone decides to make the division competitive.

The Twins want to do that.  They made it abundantly clear this offseason by going out signing Jonathan Schoop, CJ Cron, Marwin Gonzalez, and Nelson Cruz.  They loaded up on guys who they know what they’re getting out of them: Home runs.

The Twins have a lot of talent, and they only added to it.  That talent though has had its ups and downs throughout the middle part of the decade.  They’ve underachieved practically every year due to a plethora of issues.  One year (Actually, almost every year), it’s the pitching.  Another it’s because some of the youth they’ve relied on has underperformed (Bad Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano years).

In the veterans they signed, they’ve established a line of consistency they can fall back, and bring in leadership that can possibly help guys like Buxton see the ball better.  Marwin Gonzalez may not have the power that Sano does, but does sneakily drive in runs despite numbers that wouldn’t suggest he wouldn’t.  Gonzalez is a massive defensive upgrade over Sano as well, and will likely takeover for him even once Sano is healthy and ready to come back.  Giving up on Sano like that is tough, but the Twins should have been preparing for this for awhile now.  He’s just a hassle, on and off the field.

There’s a chance this Minnesota offense could make up for some of the weaknesses among the pitchers.  In Cron, Cruz and Schoop, they’ve potentially added at least 60 home runs to the offense.  Cron and Cruz could both hit 40.  The Twins finished 23rd in the majors in home runs hit last season.  They’ll easily be better than that, and could legitimately be in the top five in total bombs hit.  Add their offseason additions to Eddie Rosario (who has potential to hit 20), Max Kepler (15 is a more reasonable number) and Jorge Polanco (Like Kepler, 15 max), and the Twins are very potent.

Is it the type of offense that’s going to carry an average rotation?  Possibly.  If that’s the case, the Twins probably win 85 games, topping their PECOTA projection and putting immense pressure on Cleveland.  This offense is going to be good, so anything the pitching can add puts the team in the 90 win range.

Jose Berrios has Cy Young caliber stuff (That doesn’t mean I think he’s going to win it).  He’s the ace of this staff and is a prized gem for a Minnesota franchise that hasn’t had pitching in forever.  If he pitches well, everything else is on pace to as well.  A bad season from him is irrecoverable.

Are we Kyle Gibson fans?  He was good last season for the first time since 2015, putting up a 3.62 ERA with 179 strikeouts in 196.2 innings.  I don’t know if I trust that to happen again, but a slightly worse year still helps Minnesota.

Michael Pineda is another question mark.  He didn’t pitch last season after Tommy John and then a torn meniscus, and wasn’t great the three years prior despite high strikeout numbers.

The same goes for Jake Odorizzi.  He, like most of the Minnesota offense the past few years, has underachieved.  See how much ground Minnesota can make up with average to above average seasons from top contributors?  Odorizzi is another one.  The Twins traded for him and expected a rebound from his 2017 campaign, but didn’t get it. Odorizzi struggled to keep the ball out of the air and walked almost four guys per nine.

Unlike most years, the Twins could have a decent bullpen to fall back on if the rotation’s concerns come to light.  I liked the Martin Perez signing; limited innings could make him a more effective pitcher; I’m not a fan of their plan to make him the 5th starter.  Taylor Rogers is someone I like and who could emerge this season.  Adalberto Mejia should be given a second chance after only throwing 22.1 innings last year; he’s a talented arm who’s still young.  Blake Parker has gaudy stats and is an underrated signing who could, like Rogers, really emerge.

The Twins have the potential to really challenge the Indians for the division title.  In fact, the only way that doesn’t happen is if Cleveland fights through their injuries and own pitching issues, while the Twins pitching sinks them to way too low of levels, knocking them out of playoff contender-status.  It would have to be an apocalyptic performance on the mound for that to occur.  Then again, this is the Twins we’re talking about.  They will always find a way to disappoint and underachieve.  If there’s a year for them not to do it, then this is it.

Who are the five AL playoff teams?

The lack of quality teams in the AL Central is kind of a microcosm for the entire AL itself this season.  Fun, exciting teams exist throughout the rest of the league, but they all have serious concerns that give me pause to even put them in a playoff spot, let alone debate how far they could go once they get to October.

The Astros, Red Sox and Yankees are all safely in.  Houston’s loaded roster has PECOTA projecting them at a respectable 98 wins.  They did lose Dallas Keuchel (presumably), Charlie Morton, Lance McCullers (to injury) and Gonzalez, and also re-did their whole backstop, but replaced those guys by sliding in Colin McHugh and Brad Peacock, both of whom had been regulated to bullpen roles last season, and Michael Brantley, whose contract was a tad shocking for a guy who can’t seem to stay healthy, but does have good depth behind him incase he does get hurt.  It’s a worthwhile risk for Houston.

The Red Sox and Yankees will both comfortably make the playoffs.  That division race could be a little tighter this year; it’ll be extremely hard for the Red Sox to completely kick butt and dominate everyone again.  Those type of seasons just don’t happen consecutively.

Then it gets interesting.  As we talked about above, the Twins and Indians could both conceivably win the division.  But that doesn’t mean if one does, the other even makes the playoffs.  The interchangeability there has many avenues.

The league probably needs both to make the playoffs though.  The Rays offense isn’t very sexy, and has practically everyone coming off career years.  I’m all for their pitching innovation; it’s a brilliant and fascinating strategy, and they’re planning it well so they don’t tax the bullpen too much.  With Charlie Morton, Tyler Glasnow and Blake Snell, the Rays have three really good starters who can go deep in games and give quality starts.

But the Rays just don’t feel as good as a team like Oakland.  The A’s are in a similar spot.  Everyone offensively is coming off a career year, and will probably do similar things with their bullpen.  But the difference with the A’s, and what hurts the Rays a bit, is the division they play in.  While both teams have the ability to beat up on bottom feeders, the A’s have a higher quantity of teams to do that on.  The Orioles are garbage, and Toronto is still kicking off a rebuild.  Those are teams Tampa Bay could literally lose to 2-3 times this season.  But the rest of the division features the Red Sox and Yankees, two teams that are so much better than the Rays and will be duking it out for the division crown.

Oakland doesn’t have that stiff of competition in their division.  The Astros will kick butt, but everyone else is kind of in the middle.  The Angels are a playoff team if they had any, and I mean, for the love of God, literally any pitching.  The Mariners seem directionless (Look, I know what they’re doing and I respect it.  I just don’t know how viable it is), and the Rangers are in a rebuild.  Essentially, the A’s have an easier schedule.

Oakland’s offense is more potent and the bullpen is more fun and a tad more terrifying.  So give me the A’s over Tampa Bay, and God please don’t let me keep talking myself into the Twins.  It’s happening.  Oh boy.

Actually, there’s no way I’m projecting Minnesota to finish ahead of the A’s.  You’re pitting two polar opposites against each other in that one; the Twins never get enough production out of anyone, and the A’s always get way too much.

This is why projecting Minnesota to make the playoffs is a terrifying gamble.  We all know they’re going to let us down, so let’s just not do it.

Cleveland’s going to get the slight nod in the division; their pitching is just better and that’s what matters.  You hope Kipnis comes back and is competent, and that everyone heals from their injuries accordingly.  If not, you blow it up, ship one or two of the starters to San Diego and start building again around Francisco Lindor and Bradley Zimmer (and maybe Francisco Mejia again).

The Indians aren’t a Wild Card team this year.  They’re going to be all-in or not all-in on the division.  The margin for error, despite the crappiness of the league overall, is too tight in the Wild Card race, and will be especially too tight when it comes to the Central crown.

With that, here’s the AL Playoff standings for the 2019 season:

  1. Boston Red Sox, 97-65 (Slightly under PECOTA)
  2. Houston Astros, 95-67 (Slightly under PECOTA)
  3. Cleveland Indians, 89-73 (Well under PECOTA)
  4. New York Yankees, 96-66 (Push with PECOTA)
  5. Oakland A’s, 91-71 (Well above PECOTA)

6. Minnesota Twins, 88-74 (Above PECOTA)

7. Tampa Bay Rays, 87-75 (Slightly above PECOTA)

8. Los Angeles Angels, 82-80 (Above PECOTA)

9. Seattle Mariners, 81-81 (Above PECOTA)

10. Chicago White Sox 79-82 (Well above PECOTA)

11. Kansas City Royals, 77-85 (Above PECOTA)

12. Texas Rangers, 75-87 (Above PECOTA)

13. Detroit Tigers, 72-90 (Above PECOTA)

14. Toronto Blue Jays, 67-95 (Well below PECOTA)

15. Baltimore Orioles, 62-100, (Above PECOTA)

Now onto the NL…

Can the NL have all 10 playoff spots just for fun?

While the three best teams in baseball may be in the AL, that doesn’t give the whole league the nod.  The National League is an incredible collection of interesting teams who almost all have a case to be in contention (Except for the Marlins and Giants.  You guys have no chance).

So how does the NL get to a conceivable 10 playoffs teams?  Well, let’s start off easy.  The Dodgers are the best team, which PECOTA agreed with, giving LA a win total of 94 (A total I believe is spot on).  You could give them a couple more; I loved the Joe Kelly addition, and while the Yasiel Puig/Matt Kemp (more on that soon) money dump to Cincinnati was a hilarious predecessor to the Dodgers striking out on top free agents (Which only led them to sign “I play 100-120 games a year” AJ Pollack), it did net them some nice prospects and uncluttered an outfield that had been clogged for many years.  Now things are cleaner, and Pollack is a legitimate offensive powerhouse when healthy in center field.  LA has ridiculous depth incase of injuries, or in what they’re hoping to be is another deep run in the playoffs.

I wrote about the Padres extensively when Manny Machado signed, so it’s probably not worth going over again.  What I have realized since then is that the Padres should probably wait as long as they can to make a decision as to whether they should go all-in or not.  If the NL is madness, you wait, develop your prospects and try for next season (That’s most likely going to happen.  They’re probably a year away).  If San Diego gets out to a blazing start, then possibly they do make a move for some experienced pitching and put together this future championship team now.

The Rockies made the playoffs last year, and as usual no one talked about it or is talking about them now.  The problem is that the Rockies literally did almost nothing this Winter besides add Daniel Murphy when everyone else that they’ll be competing with got substantially better.  Them and San Diego should be hand-in-hand record wise throughout the season, but I don’t expect either to be truly in the playoff hunt come August.  The Padres only get that dose of respect due to their potential.

Things get fun the in NL Central.  There are two powerhouses, one now very intriguing team, a maybe and a probably not.  Despite the Cubs horrific collapse at the end of last season, it’s hard to not make them the favorites for the division coming into this season.  The talent is just too rich there.  PECOTA came in strangely not only for them (79 wins!  5th place!) but the whole division.  The whole division, top to bottom, spanned only an eight win range.  PECOTA had Milwaukee winning it with 87.

It’s hard to see what PECOTA doesn’t like with the Cubs.  The team is loaded from a roster/talent standpoint; just take Ian Happ’s demotion as a perfect test case.  That guy is starting in the outfield for the Diamondbacks right now.  Maybe PECOTA projects Jon Lester and Ben Zobrist to fall apart, or Yu Darvish to struggle again.  Albert Almora Jr. isn’t as high a volume a bat as Ian Happ’s; maybe that could give some insight.  The Cubs made a couple bullpen additions, including Xavier Cedeno, who Milwaukee benefitted from nicely in the playoffs, but a lot of the same guys still exist from the meltdown last year.

But how is that eight wins worse than Milwaukee?  The Brewers have worse starting pitching and have key relievers like Corey Knebel already hurt.  They lost Cedeno, and have home run machine Chase Anderson back in the bullpen mix, along with 36-year-old Mat Albers, who we never know what to expect from.

Everything went right for the Brewers last season.  That’s not to say this year is a disaster, but with luck not on their side, some underrated roster losses, the presence of the Cubs and possibly two more division contenders, things may get a little tougher on the Brew Crew.  There’s a decent chance they’re in the same position the Cubs were last season.   At the same time, the offense is frightening, and they’ve got the bullpen strategy down.  Last year may not be a fluke whatsoever.

The Brewers may not even be the Cubs’ biggest worry.  St. Louis added Paul Goldschmidt… (Hold on, I’m going to take a walk)

Okay, we’re back.  Yeah, so the Cardinals got Goldschmidt for BASICALLY NOTHING and are now terrifying in practically every facet.  This is bold, but their lineup feels very much like the Red Sox’s last season.  They have a good mix of contact and power hitters, and guys who can very well hit for both.  They’ve gone in and re-did their rotation without harm being caused, replacing old with new featuring Mike Mikolas, Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson, with mainstays Michael Wacha and the probably-washed Adam Wainwright (It’s okay, though.  There is no Wainwright slander here.  That’s one of the best pitchers of my era and we’re going to respect him for it).  The bullpen is just as good.  I refuse to believe we’re at the end of the road with Andrew Miller; that contract could look very good soon and leave teams kicking themselves.  St. Louis also has the “I can’t believe that pitch is legal” guy named Jordan Hicks, and will be working Alex Reyes back from the multiple injuries he’s suffered.

The Cardinals feel like a team that could win 90 games.  PECOTA had them at 86, just below Milwaukee.  That’s one of the strangest projections this year (In fact, this whole division probably is); the Cardinals don’t really have a weakness and could be a top eight offense in baseball.  With the way the game is played now, that gets you a lot more than five games above .500.

As if the division wasn’t strong enough, the Reds did some interesting maneuvering to all the sudden make themselves a bit more presentable in this NL arms race.

Cincinnati, like the Mets (more on them soon), is a boom or bust team.  Their biggest need was pitching, and they went out and took care of that, to an extent.  They got Alex Wood in the Kemp/Puig deal, who is a solid No.2 to No.3 starter and has been legitimately fantastic since being in a Dodgers uniform.  They also traded Tanner Roark, another back of the line starter, and Sonny Gray, who they then decided to extend immediately without seeing how he adjusts to an even worse ballpark than Yankee Stadium.  That whole decision, the trade itself, the production they’re expecting from Gray, and the contract extension was mind-boggling.  Sure, Gray was a Cy Young candidate in Oakland, but Yankee Stadium traumatized him, and some ballpark effect stats have Great American Ballpark above Coors Field.  If Gray got slaughtered in New York, Cincy isn’t exactly a better situation, or a place for him to improve.

The Reds are banking on Luis Castillo rebounding from his 2018 performance and having what he did in 2017 come back.  The great first year and down second year is typical of young arms.  His junior campaign could be a breakout season if everything goes right.  Sure, nothing’s changed with the ballpark; Castillo suffers from the same issue Gray does… the ball gets smacked off his pitches, and ends up out of the park way too much.

The Reds are completely dependent on their pitching.  The offense is talented and littered with power.  They’ll have no trouble scoring runs, especially in that ballpark.  The Reds are like a lot of teams; they need pitching to come through if they want to be in the playoffs.  While Gray and Anthony DeSclafani scare me, the Reds have at least three other baseline starters in their rotation.  Don’t count out the bullpen either.  Raisel Iglesias is one of the best closers in baseball, and Michael Lorenzen, Jared Hughes and David Hernandez are all quality relievers.  It’s not a totally loaded group, and probably isn’t one that bails the rotation out of games, but certainly keeps them on pace among the division.

The problem is that while the Reds are probably in playoff contention in the AL, they play in the NL, which is already up to six (We’re throwing that Colorado/San Diego spot in there for fun) of the 10 playoff spots we’re giving it for this exercise.  Realistically speaking, the NL already has one more team than it can take.  And we’re not even to the best division in baseball yet.

The NL East could have three playoff teams, and could deserve four.  Who gets left out?

It’s the best division in baseball for a reason.  The NL East has the team that lost the best free agent on the market and the team that acquired him.  Both still could win 90 games with ease.  Then there’s two teams that are a bit on the outside.  The Braves are looking to replicate last year’s success and take the next step (Unluckily for them, that might be hard), and the Mets went all-in as well.  A lot has to give in this division.

Despite the competition, I feel there is a pretty clear hierarchy, and it starts with the two teams who got immensely better over the offseason.  Philadelphia signed Bryce Harper, traded for Jean Segura and J.T. Realmuto, and is a legitimately terrifying offensive team with one of the top pitchers in baseball and only one real concern amongst the rotation (I’m just not very high on Zach Elfin.  Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez should improve).  They got David Robertson in free agency as well, adding him to a bullpen that was 13th in WAR last season.

The Nationals lost Bryce Harper, but are blessed to have two generational talents in the outfield to replace one.  Juan Soto’s explosion onto the MLB scene last year has projection systems going nuts, and Victor Robles accompanies him in centerfield.  They replaced Tanner Roark with Patrick Corbin, which is a massive talent upgrade but probably ends up closer to a net neutral value-wise given the large contract handed to him (Corbin’s literally had one good year and I want to remind people of that).  Their bullpen also improved, as they signed Trevor Rosenthal and will probably move Anibal Sanchez back there to help fight regression after his insane, miracle season with Atlanta last year.

Both Washington and Philly are 90 game winners.  There’s way too much talent between the two of them, and it’ll be a slugfest until late September.  I tend to lean with the Phillies; I know it’s a lot of hype that I’m buying into, but the sheer slugging they possess and the typical Nationals injury bug scares me.

Next are the Braves.  They didn’t do a whole lot in the offseason besides sign Josh Donaldson, which is an upgrade over John Camargo but didn’t totally seem necessary, and doesn’t nearly move the needle enough when it comes to keeping up with the rest of the division.

Perhaps the Braves didn’t do a lot because they knew it wouldn’t matter.  Everything went right for them last year.  All their young guys had career years, and the pithing was good enough to get them into the playoffs.  This year, regression can be expected, and that’s from practically everyone, youngsters especially.  They’re banking on a lot of youth in the rotation.  The bullpen isn’t as good.  In the AL, they’re probably a playoff team.  In this league, and especially this division, they get left in the dust, even in the 85-90 win range.

The wild-card here is the Mets.  They, like everyone else in the division, went all-in. Some of the trades they made were incredibly confusing, but at the end of it everything doesn’t look too bad.  They still have two of the best pitchers in baseball at the front-end of their rotation.  The bullpen is ridiculous with Edwin Diaz added to it, and young talent is everywhere.

That’s also part of the issue though.  With Brandon Nimmo, Michael Conforto, Amed Rosario, Dominic Smith and Pete Alonso all playing massive roles, who knows what we’re going to get.  Conforto is slowly turning into a “I’m going to be good every other year” guy, while Nimmo is turning into the player I’ve always wanted him to be.  Rosario hits decently but struggles to get on base, and isn’t a high production offensive player either.  The options at first base are both nice; I like Smith a lot but Alonso deserves the starting role.  Still, there’s a chance both struggle immensely given Smith’s plate issues in the past and Alonso making his debut.

The best case scenario is that the Mets are this season’s Braves.  All the young guys have fantastic years, and everything starts to come together.  The pitching powers them to a playoff berth and surprises everyone.

But the Braves got lucky last season with the division.  The Phillies were the only real competitor, and even they fell apart once things heated up.  That’s not the case this year; the division is better all-around, and a rise like Atlanta’s last year is much less likely.  New York is much closer to the Braves than the Marlins obviously.  In fact, them and Atlanta could be neck-in-neck.  But in the grand scheme of things, they could just be fighting for the second spot out of the playoffs.  Congratulations on that, and welcome to the National League.

NL Playoff Standings:

  1. Los Angeles Dodgers, 97-65 (Above PECOTA)
  2. Chicago Cubs, 93-69 (Well above PECOTA)
  3. Philadelphia Phillies, 93-69 (Above PECOTA)
  4. St. Louis Cardinals, 91-71 (Above PECOTA)
  5. Washington Nationals, 90-72 (Above PECOTA)

6. Milwaukee Brewers, 89-73 (Slightly above PECOTA)

7. Atlanta Braves, 88-74 (Above PECOTA)

8. New York Mets, 86-76 (Slightly below PECOTA)

9. Colorado Rockies, 85-77 (Slightly above PECOTA)

10.  Cincinnati Reds, 83-79 (Slightly above PECOTA)

11. San Diego Padres, 80-82 (Slightly below PECOTA)

12. Arizona Diamondbacks, 79-83 (Slightly below PECOTA)

13. Pittsburgh Pirates, 78-84 (Slightly below PECOTA)

14. San Francisco Giants, 76-86 (Slightly above PECOTA)

15. Miami Marlins, 73-89 (Slightly above PECOTA)