Category: 2019 MLB Preview

2019 MLB Preview: Final predictions for Opening Day

Image result for opening day
Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh man.

Guys …

Guys …

GUYS!

IT’S BASEBALL TIME! Our great winter of discontent has ended and it’s time to pop the mitts. Let’s commence the celebration with some final predictions and observations, starting with the playoffs.

Playoffs

American League

Wild Card: Boston Red Sox over Minnesota Twins
ALDS: Houston Astros (1) over Boston Red Sox (WC) in 4
ALDS: New York Yankees (2) over Cleveland Indians (3) in 5
ALCS: Houston Astros over New York Yankees in 5

The modern American League is just a damn bloodbath. The Astros, Red Sox and Yankees would all be commanding favorites in the NL. Alas, they are cursed to pummel each other. That Astros-Sox ALDS would be incredible. Please, baseball Gods, please give us a healthy Verlander-Sale matchup to open it. Please.

The Yankees were my original World Series pick before Luis Severino tweaked his shoulder. Look, maybe he’ll be fine and the early, early returns are okay, but yikes. Yikes.  Severino missing extended time changes the entire tenor of the Yankee season; the Bombers can’t replace their young ace. Yes, the offense should be potent — I expect an incredible year from Aaron Judge — and sure, the bullpen is straight out of Asgard, but I can’t do it. Severino is too important for them.

Ultimately, no one packs the punch of the Astros. This team is so talented and so smartly developed that picking against them, while not sexy, seems the smartest path. Even if Severino was healthy, my pick is the Astros.

National League

Wild Card: Colorado Rockies over Chicago Cubs
NLDS: Philadelphia Phillies (1) over Colorado Rockies (WC) in 5
NLDS: Milwaukee Brewers (2) over Los Angeles Dodgers (3) in 5
NLCS: Milwaukee Brewers over Philadelphia Phillies in 5

The Cubs are in store for a fun offseason next winter. Heck, this winter wasn’t fun either — did you know the Cubs are out of money? It even became fashionable to pick them to miss the postseason, and while I don’t see that exactly, the pitching rotation does feel like a shack ready to blow over. Another injury-plagued season from Kris Bryant and suddenly things aren’t quite as comfortable long-term either.

A part of me wants to say eff it and take the Dodgers to get back to the World Series again, but I just can’t. The fatigue of all these games the last few years and the concerns of Clayton Kershaw’s health was too much for me.

In the end, I’m riding with the Brewers because the combination of Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain and that bullpen are strong enough to ease my concerns over the rotation. This team can really play. Also, the playoffs are random and I like the idea of the Brewers getting another taste of the Fall Classic.

Too bad they’ll be facing a potential dynasty.

World Series: Houston Astros over Milwaukee Brewers in 5

Awards

AL MVP: Mike Trout

Let’s not get cute, okay? Aaron Judge will be great, Mookie Betts will be great. The AL has lots of great players. Pick the greatest.

Frankly, it bothers me that Trout only has two. I think this stuff kinda matters for the historical record. I hope he ends up with like four or five.

AL Cy Young: Justin Verlander

I want this. Look, I know this changes almost daily, but Verlander is my favorite pitcher. He’s just a modern marvel and I love him. An aging gunslinger who has barely lost a step is my kind of story.

Also: it kind of sucks that Verlander only has one Cy Young award, right? Feels wrong. Yes, I know, he has an MVP too.

AL Rookie of the Year: Baby Vlad, should the Baseball Gods bless us with his health and ample opportunity.

NL MVP: Corey Seager

He’s great and will be the principal reason why the Dodgers win yet another division crown. This is Seager’s team now and I can’t imagine a much better face for them.

NL Cy Young: Max Scherzer

Not getting cute here, either. Give me all the strikeouts. Also, a fourth Cy Young win for Mad Max puts him in some seriously rarefied air. Here’s the list of pitchers with four or more:

  • Roger Clemens (7)
  • Randy Johnson (5)
  • Steve Carlton (4)
  • Greg Maddux (4)

Padro Martinez, Sandy Koufax, Jim Palmer, Clayton Kershaw and Tom Seaver all have three.

Wow.

NL Rookie of the Year: Fernando Tatis Jr. This might require the voters caring a lot about defense, but they should so there.

Random Observations

Presented in no particular order:

I think Yasiel Puig will be a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing season for Reds fans. The team can’t compete, but Puig certainly can entertain. Keep an eye on whether Luis Castillo develops, too.

It’s possible the Indians will regret not cashing in Corey Kluber. I’m worried. Age and a lot of metrics aren’t on his side anymore. With Trevor Bauer around, they still have an absolute ace, but …

The Tampa Bay Rays will be really good. If they were in the other East, they might win it.

Pay attention to how the Red Sox use Chris Sale now that he’s locked into a longer deal. He’s fragile but ever so dominant. No need to push him until like August, really. The Red Sox are playing for championships, not division crowns.

If James Paxton throws more than 160 innings, he’s a serious Cy Young candidate on narrative, anyway. He’ll have a lot of runs at his back and a bullpen to lock in a bunch of wins.

I didn’t end up picking them to make the playoffs, but the Atlanta Braves should be an absolute blast to watch. Ronald Acuña, Ozzie Albies and Freddie Freeman are a heck of a trio.

There’s lots of Jameson Taillon for Cy Young chatter around the Baseball Internet. Wouldn’t it be wild if Chris Archer tapped into that sort of unrealized potential of his and nearly won it himself?

Part of my heart belongs to the San Diego Padres for not messing around — a la the Toronto Blue Jays, Cincinnati Reds and so many others — with their top prospect. Francisco Tatis Jr will be on the Opening Day roster. The Pads will be a heck of a watch.

What to watch today

We’ve got a couple stellar pitching matchups for Opening Day.

1:05 PM: Mets (Jacob deGrom) at Nationals (Max Scherzer)

4:05 PM: Astros (Justin Verlander) at Rays (Blake Snell)

4:10 PM: Indians (Corey Kluber) at Twins (Jose Berrios)

 

 

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2019 MLB Preview: Astros rule the AL West, but the NL isn’t so clear

Justin Verlander and his Houston Astros are October-bound.

If you missed my other breakdowns, click here for the AL and NL East and here for the AL and NL Central.

The Houston Astros are pretty awesome, guys. Barring huge upheaval, they will win the AL West. That take will hardly get me on ESPN’s morning shows, but alas. Truth is truth. The boys in Texas have an excellent core of young talent, including the newly-extended third baseman Alex Bregman, former MVP second baseman Jose Altuve and former first overall pick, shortstop Carlos Correa. Oh, and a couple righthanded starters who pack some heat: Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole (who was the subject of an Ode to a Pitcher breakdown a few weeks back).

The NL West isn’t nearly as simple to peg. The Los Angeles Dodgers have been on top for awhile now, but with their ace battling arm trouble and some young talent dotting the rest of the division, suddenly things aren’t quite as secure.

AL West

1. Houston Astros

Goal: Win World Series
Most Important Player: Alex Bregman

I expect the Astros will miss Charlie Morton, who left to sign with the Tampa Bay Rays. Beyond Verlander and Cole, the rotation could prove troublesome for manager AJ Hinch. I expect Collin McHugh to turn into a quality starter without much issue, but will Wade Miley manage another sub-3 ERA with such piddling strikeout numbers? I doubt it.

Will it matter? Nah.

The Astros are both very talented across the roster and boast one of the savvier front offices in the sport. Don’t be shocked if they turn one of their fifth starter options into a valuable piece. (I’m a little surprised it wasn’t Joshua James.)

Much like with the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians the goal is nothing short of a championship. Those aces and that lineup make them the favorite.

2. Oakland Athletics

Goal: Win AL West
Most Important Player: Matt Davidson

Jurickson Profar was the man like few other prospects I can recall. Breaking into the Major Leagues at 19, he looked tapped for stardom. It just never happened; injuries, ineffectiveness and an unclear spot in the Rangers infield all seemed to play a role. But finally, years after he debuted, Profar turned in a pretty solid year: 108 wRC+, solid enough defense at both shortstop and second base.

He signed with the Athletics in the offseason, a sneaky good move for Billy Beane’s club after letting Jed Lowrie walk. While it’s probably unlikely Profar develops into the superstar he once flashed the potential to become, he could certainly still be an above-average player. Dude is only 26. He’s one to watch in 2019 and beyond.

Oh, and Blake Treinen is good. You should watch him too.

3. Los Angeles Angels

Goal: Make the playoffs
Most Important Player: Willie Mays 2.0

OK, Arte Moreno. I hope you are sitting down for this.

You locked up the world’s greatest baseball player until he’s nearly 40. Great work. In terms of on-field performance, he’s worth the money. He might be the best player who ever lived. He’s an incredible talent and by all reports, a great role model in the Anaheim community. You probably can’t design a better superstar.

Don’t screw this up. You hear me? Don’t screw this up. I don’t care what it takes, I don’t care what it costs you, you had damn well better get Mike freaking Trout to the World Series. Don’t you dare cry poor to me, Arte; we know the truth. Major League Baseball teams print money. I’m saying this to you as a fan of the New York Yankees. The idea of facing Mike Trout in October is petrifying.

Give me a reason to be afraid, Arte. The sport needs Mike Trout doing Mike Trout things in the postseason.

4. Seattle Mariners

Goal: Tank?
Most Important Player: Yusei Kikuchi

One could argue the Mariners’ most important player is actually Justus Sheffield, but I’m much more interested in Kikuchi. He had some really nasty moments in his debut against the Athletics last week and profiles as an above-average starter. He’s dealt with shoulder trouble in the past, but if he stays healthy he might end up surprising some people.

The Mariners were wise to trade second baseman Robinson Cano when they did. Cano had been pretty darn good for them, PED suspension notwithstanding. Edwin Diaz is a lights-out reliever, but including him to draw more out of the New York Mets was worth it. They might miss James Paxton a lot more, but then again I don’t think Sheffield is a big league starter.

Ultimately, the Mariners were smart to rebuild. Last year’s 89 wins were a little hocus pocus. The American League is a bloodbath as long as the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians and Astros are all great; that leaves one precious Wild Card spot to battle over. Credit to the Mariners front office for beginning to add to a depleted farm system.

The 2019 Mariners won’t contend, but the team is making the right choices to compete in 2022.

5. Texas Rangers

Goal: Tank
Most Important Player: Joey Gallo

You know, it can’t be said Joey Gallo isn’t exciting. If you’re in the ballpark and Gallo is up, your beer goes down and your eyes go up. Focus. He might crush a 450-foot bomb. There’s a great chance he’ll strikeout, of course — he was punched out 196 times in 2017 and 207 times last season. But when Gallo makes contact, he makes contact. Dude doesn’t get cheated. The power is incredible.

None of this makes him a great player, unfortunately. The defense isn’t good and the lack of contact keep his OBPs low. If he somehow clawed his batting average up, say, 15 points, the OBPs would get a lot more interesting. Alas, he is what he is; a fun slugger.  For a team that will struggle all season, Gallo is at least a reason to be invested.

The Rangers also have a farm system in need of more talent, but unlike Seattle, they lack veteran pieces that could deliver as much as Cano and Diaz. Might they deal Gallo? Shin-Soo Choo?

AL West Observations

Best Pitchers going into 2019 Best Position Players going into 2019
1. Justin Verlander 1. Mike Trout
2. Gerrit Cole 2. Alex Bregman
3. Yusei Kikuchi 3. Jose Altuve

NL West

1. Los Angeles Dodgers

Goal: Win World Series
Most Important Player: Corey Seager

Tick tock. Tick tock.

The Clayton Kershaw era in Los Angeles has certainly been full of winning — Cy Youngs, an MVP, a handful of division crowns and a couple deep playoff runs. But now, after consecutive defeats in the World Series, only one thing matters. Winning the World Series.

But might the clock be nearing midnight? With Kershaw battling injuries amid dropping velocity, one wonders. It’s not easy getting to the World Series at all, much less three years in a row. Walker Buehler’s emergence sort of mitigates the potential loss of Kershaw, but no rotation maintains its stature amid such a loss.

The lineup should be as good as ever, especially if Corey Seager returns to form after missing all of last season with an injury. I’m not especially confident about Austin Barnes and Russell Martin replacing Yasmani Grandal, but it’s a blow they can afford. This team won’t hurt for runs.

Be careful with Kershaw. Even if he’s not ready until June or later, the Dodgers should be strong enough to hang around in the NL West. For both the future Hall of Famer and the club, October glory means more than anything else.

2. Colorado Rockies

Goal: Make playoffs
Most Important Player: Nolan Arenado

When Dan Syzmborski’s ZiPS projections for the Rockies came out, he had this to say about the top of the Colorado rotation:

Going into last season, ZiPS thought that all five projected starters would be league-average or better and that’s pretty much what happened, though Kyle Freeland crushed his preseason projections to put up a legitimate Cy Young-esque season. ZiPS isn’t sold on Freeland being that good, but it is sold on German Marquez being a legitimate ace pitcher.

Freeland put up more than 8 wins above replacement last season. I doubt he’s that good, but for the sake of the Rockies I hope he’s not what ZiPS thinks either: 4.54 ERA. If Marquez pitches to his potential, as ZiPS believes he can (3.82 ERA), the Rockies could have quite the one-two punch. I’m a big fan of Marquez; give me all the strikeouts.

Trevor Story and Nolan Arenado are a pretty slick left side of the infield. I’m not sure anyone is too enthused about Ian Desmond in center field, but Charlie Blackmon wasn’t the answer either. This might have been a funky place for Billy Hamilton to sign. I might be the only one, but that thought made me smile. A big goofy smile.

3. Arizona Diamondbacks

Goal: Tank?
Most Important Player: Zack Greinke

I doubt it was a fun offseason for Snakes fans. The team traded the franchise’s greatest position player, Paul Goldschmidt, to the St. Louis Cardinals. The team watched two above-average players (Patrick Corbin and AJ Pollock) leave in free agency. That’s a bitter pill in any circumstances, but Arizona, having just won 82 games, profiled like a team with reason to build, not dismantle. The bottom 40% of the division is rebuilding and the Dodgers are showing some cracks.

But, alas.

One wonders if the teardown continues, perhaps with the exploration of a Zack Greinke deal (although the former Cy Young winner has a partial no-trade clause). No reason to hang around in the upper 70s in wins. The Snakes chose not to push for 90 wins; might as well tear it down to 72 or so.

The farm system is doing considerably better than in years past, which while hardly a solace for fans who watched so much talent exit the state, might be nice in a few years.

4. San Francisco Giants

Goal: Tank
Most Important Player: Buster Posey

It almost seems forgotten in modern baseball conversation, but the Giants won three championships in five seasons not too long ago. Heck, even considering it myself was a bit jarring: three titles in the last eight seasons? Wow. You employ Barry Bonds at the peak of his powers, manage one appearance in the Fall Classic and lose. He retires and two years later, bam. Championship.

Baseball is a weird sport. The Giants of today are in the midst of a slow rebuild. Flags fly forever — we must not forget that. One wonders, though, if the Giants are willing to go full Houston Astros and sell off every decent piece available. The Madison Bumgarner rumors abound, and I’m sure the front office would love nothing more than a kickass first half from the lefty who once terrorized the Kansas City Royals. Either way, probably smart for the team to cash him in. Same with Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford. Crawford especially could be a valuable piece.

The much more gut-wrenching choice would be former MVP Buster Posey. I’m not sure I could pull the trigger on that one.

5. San Diego Padres

Goal: Get ready for 2021
Most Important Player: Manny Machado

Someone finally signed Machado, quite the shrewd move for both team and player. Machado got his money and the Padres got a middle-of-the-order slugger who should be able to man third base for half a decade or more, alongside prized prospect Fernando Tatis Jr at short. The depth extends past Tatis, too; the Pads finished first in Keith Law’s team rankings. It might not become clear this season, but the future looks bright down in Southern California.

If Tatis Jr becomes a star and Machado holds his value — an if, but not necessarily a big one — the Padres have a foundation to really work with. Given ownership’s willingness to spend in doling out the Machado (10/300) and Hosmer (8/144) deals plus the potential of that aforementioned farm system, optimism is founded. But one must remember the 2018 team nearly lost 100 games. There is plenty of work to be done.

NL West Observations

Best Pitchers going into 2019 Best Position Players going into 2019
1. Zack Greinke 1. Nolan Arenado
2. Clayton Kershaw (out of respect) 2. Manny Machado
3. Walker Buehler 3. Justin Turner

2019 MLB Preview: Let’s try and predict the crazy NL Central

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Christian Yelich mashed his way to the 2018 NL MVP. IAN D’ANDREA

If you missed my breakdown of the AL East and NL East, click here.

What to do with the pesky NL Central? Oh, what to do … what to do. We’ve got last year’s division winners, the Milwaukee Brewers. The Brew Crew are led by superstar outfielders Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain and added an excellent catcher in Yasmani Grandal, but the pitching is a question.  The Chicago Cubs are no stranger to stars either; Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and the like are still around. But perhaps injuries and the fatigue of constant contention has worn them down. And meanwhile, the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds added firepower and the Pittsburgh Pirates might have the best pitcher in the division. There isn’t an actual bad team to be found here.

The AL Central likely will have a familiar champion. But a slow recovery by superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor could open the door to a push from the Minnesota Twins, who could blossom into an exciting team if a few things go their way.

The bottom of the division is … well …

Let’s dig in.

NL Central

1. Milwaukee Brewers

Goal: Win World Series
Most Important Player: Christian Yelich

The Brewers as currently constituted are a really good team. Yelich and Cain are about as good a pair of superstars as you’ll find. Grandal was a great addition. Travis Shaw is a heck of a player to have around. Josh Hader’s stuff threatens to violate the Geneva Convention and somehow Jeremy Jeffress was even better last year by bWAR.

And yet … I’m uneasy. I’m uneasy because you kinda need to squint to find a pretty good starting pitcher here. Yes, Jimmy Nelson — another gift to us pitcher-giffers — is healthy. Partnering with him Jhoulys Chacin makes a solid pair of starters, but the rest of this picture doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.

Brewers starting pitchers finished with a combined -2.2 bWAR last season, 22nd best in the world, amid such luminaries as the Los Angeles Angels. It worked because the bullpen usage was creative, plus the offense and defense were so good — the Brewers non-pitcher WAR ranked third-best in the sport. It might have to be that good again.

It can be.

2. Chicago Cubs

Goal: Win World Series
Most Important Player: Kris Bryant

Amazing how good the North Siders are despite the owners being broke. Silly ownership comments aside, isn’t it odd how gloomy the feeling is around the Cubbies? Sure, Kris Bryant didn’t continue his run of MVP-caliber seasons last year; okay, year one of the Yu Darvish experience was a disaster. These are indeed first world problems. They nearly won 100 games and the manufactured rules of the sport kept them from the NLDS.

The Cubs are really good. I’m not high on the rotation at Joe Maddon’s disposal either — as Joe Sheehan pointed out in his excellent newsletter, not a lot of strikeouts here — but much like the Brewers, the elite talent on the position player side is hard to ignore. That infield is incredible, and if Javier Baez finally figures out what walks are, watch out.

But, it’s really hard to keep pushing like this for years on end.

3. St. Louis Cardinals

Goal: Make the playoffs
Most Important Player: Paul Goldschmidt

Yet another NL Central team with excellent position player talent that you wish had just one more good arm, the St. Louis Cardinals added first baseman Paul Goldschmidt to an offense that finished tied for second in the NL by OPS+. This team won’t struggle for runs.

Oh, how the Cards could benefit from having someone like JA Happ on this roster (or even Gio Gonzalez, also gobbled up by the Yankees on a — wait, what? — minor league deal). The Cardinals could really use 170 more quality innings somewhere to pair with Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty. In fairness, that’s true of basically everyone but the Indians; alas, the Birds must hope for health. Carlos Martinez, Alex Reyes, Michael Wacha, and Adam Wainwright could all have 2+ WAR years; but if only two of them threw more than 130 innings, would you be shocked?

4. Cincinnati Reds

Goal: Win more than 85 games?
Most Important Player: Joey Votto

The Reds had an aggressive offseason. They acquired a bunch of outfielders — Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp — plus starting pitchers Sonny Gray and Alex Wood. At the time, I was supportive of the moves, even despite giving away a couple good prospects to get Puig. The Reds have been some frustrating combination of incompetent (the Zack Cozart debacle comes to mind) or immobile since they last made the playoffs. At least the team was trying, right?

It won’t be enough, but the future is bright. Here’s the first key; don’t screw up Nick Senzel. Play him in center field and leave him the hell alone. I’m sure they’ll dick around and leave him the minors for a while, whatever. Once he’s in Cincy, he plays center. Period. Whether he ever plays a full season might be a different — perhaps unanswerable — question.

The second key: can Luis Castillo be a top-end starter? He throws hard and that changeup produces plenty of whiffs, but the fastball is straight as a board and he serves up batting practice way too often. Of the options close to or in the majors, no one else has Castillo’s potential to lead a rotation. Ultimately, the fastball might be what it is, but could mechanical tweaks help him locate it more often? Could a revised approach — a la Masahiro Tanaka — exemplify his strengths?

Also: I guess you can prove yourself now, Sonny Gray.

5. Pittsburgh Pirates

Goal: Win more than 85 games?
Most Important Player: Jameson Taillon

The Pittsburgh Pirates might boast the division’s two best starting pitchers. Chris Archer didn’t come cheap, but he’s a reliable strikeout machine. Jameson Taillon is rounding into form and is rightfully being pegged around the baseball internet as a Cy Young pick; the stuff is ridiculous and at 27, he could easily break into that conversation. Don’t be surprised if Taillon produces a +6 WAR kind of season.

Starling Marte is a pretty good player and the leader of a sneaky-good outfield. Gregory Polanco took some really promising steps last season and Corey Dickerson has some pop (can someone tell Corey that walks are not only acceptable but in fact encouraged?). Beyond them, this team has enough players to not suck but not enough players to win. Oh, how different this story could be if the Bucs had ponied up for Manny Machado. Alas.

Even if it delays the chances of serious contention, I understand a team and fan base just not wanting to repeat the dreaded years between Bonds and McCutchen again.

I’ll be honest; you can flip the bottom three in any way you want and I could believe it.

NL Central Observations

Best Pitchers going into 2019 Best Position Players going into 2019
1. Jameson Taillon 1. Christian Yelich
2. Chris Archer 2. Lorenzo Cain
3. Miles Mikolas 3. Paul Goldschmidt

AL Central

1. Cleveland Indians

Goal: Win World Series
Most Important Player: Francisco Lindor

The Indians are winning the division again, but there are pathways to trouble for Terry Francona’s boys. The team is so top-heavy; Lindor, Jose Ramirez, and the starting rotation are by and large all elite. But the outfield? Yuck. The bullpen? Shiver. That’s why the Lindor situation should send a chill up an Indians fan’s back. As long as the stars are all around, this team competes. Losing one exposes the flaws.

Chances are he’ll be fine and the Indians will cruise to the postseason. But the team didn’t address the bullpen situation and with the Red Sox, Yankees and Astros (spoiler) all competing for the same pennant, one wonders if the window is beginning to slam shut.

2. Minnesota Twins

Goal: Make playoffs
Most Important Player: Jose Berrios

A lot of things have to go right for the Twins to eclipse the Indians. Byron Buxton stays healthy and finds just enough production at the plate; Miguel Sano also stays healthy and mashes. Heck, even if both of those things occur I suspect the Twins would need trouble from the Indians to really compete.

So, instead, let’s talk about Jose Berrios. I love Jose Berrios. You should too. He’s 24, packs a ridiculous curveball and increased his strikeout rate a healthy amount from 2017-18. The challenge for Berrios is controlling that hammer. Somedays he can; that allows his fastball to live up in the zone. Somedays he can’t; hitters lay off the deuce and sit on the fastball.

As a fan of young, highly-giffable pitchers, I hope Berrios figures that out. The AL Central would be loaded with aces.

3. Chicago White Sox

Goal: Tank
Most Important Player: Eloy Jimenez

Look. If there was ever a team who should have just ponied up and added both Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, it was the pale hose. The outfield situation in Chicago is a car crash. Alas, that didn’t happen.

Eloy Jimenez will surely rake once the team decides he’s saved enough service time. Yoan Moncada probably won’t be a star, but he’s a big league regular anyway. Michael Kopech’s injury really sucks. Losing a year of development at 22 isn’t a picnic for the pitcher, the team or the fans. Things could be so different for this club had a few things broken a different way.

4. Detroit Tigers

Goal: Tank
Most Important Player: Jeimer Candelario

Look. For the big league team, the goal is pretty much to lose all the time. Sure, helping Michael Fulmer reclaim his former glory (Editor’s note: Not happening this season) and working with Jeimer Candelario to develop a bit at the plate are solid goals, but the main focus is to lose and continue to build the farm system. The future could be bright — Casey Mize is doing well in his first pro camp, for example. Sometimes rebuilds aren’t pretty. The Tigers should keep stockpiling high draft picks and pour money and manpower into turning those guys into stars.

Instead of dwelling on that, let’s appreciate Miggy. No one thought he’d age gracefully through the massive contract he signed in 2016, but the last two seasons haven’t been pretty. Sometimes aging sluggers collapse.

However, few batters have his plate discipline, even after age and injuries. The power might be gone for good; who knows. But if he can cobble together enough batting average, I bet Miggy can still be a valuable hitter on the walks alone. I’m hoping he hasn’t gone full Pujols on us.

5. Kansas City Royals

Goal: Tank
Most Important Player: Adalberto Mondesi

Flags fly forever. The Royals probably should have sold the farm awhile ago, cashing in the now-injured Salvador Perez and Merrifield for prospects. They didn’t. Okay. This team has no prayer of winning and holding onto any valuable, nearing-30 big leaguers only pushes the next contention window out further.

But hey — flags fly forever. The Royals won. It just so happens they might not do that again for a while.

AL Central Observations

Best Pitchers going into 2019 Best Position Players going into 2019
1. Trevor Bauer 1. Jose Ramirez
2. Corey Kluber 2. Francisco Lindor
3. Carlos Carrasco 3. Adalberto Mondesi

2019 MLB Preview: With Kershaw ailing, healthy Seager critical for Dodgers

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Corey Seager should be healthy for the 2019 season. ARTURO PARDAVILA III

The Dodgers have been Clayton Kershaw’s team for so long it’s hard to imagine a different player in such a role. (Matt Kemp? Manny Ramirez for a minute?) Kershaw’s claim is hard to argue; three Cy Young awards and a more than Hall of Fame worthy peak will do that for you. He’s probably the defining pitcher of the last 10 years. How many of us pitching nerds on the East Coast stayed up late to watch the lefty spin curveballs?

But his time as the most important Dodger is nearing an end. Time is undefeated, and it appears to be doing its unholy work on Kershaw’s left arm. That sucks not only for the Dodgers and their fans but for baseball overall. For all we know, Kershaw will be back in the regular season, back to his old tricks. But … there are reasons to be worried. Real worried. He’ll be getting an Ode to a Pitcher eventually, I promise.

However, a new face has emerged over the last few seasons, even if last year was unfortunate.

Corey Seager truly broke into the Major Leagues in 2016 and established himself as a star right away at the young age of 22, hitting to the tune of a 134 OPS+ and handling shortstop. There has been some concern whether Seager is too big for the position, and while he might eventually have to move, he’s been fine thus far in his young career.

Seager’s emergence came as no surprise, mind you — for example, he was MLB.com’s second-best prospect going into the 2015 season. That Dodger team went on to lose the curse-lifting Chicago Cubs.

Seager’s 2017 was roughly as good; 126 OPS+ and better defense if DRS is to be trusted. That Dodger team — led by Seager, Justin Turner and more — pushed all the way to the World Series but lost to the Houston Astros.

Going into 2018, Seager had established himself as one of the game’s premier shortstops, along with Francisco Lindor, Andrelton Simmons, Xander Bogaerts and a maybe a couple others, and had I written a Bill Simmons-esque “Trade Value” column a year ago, Seager could have cracked the top-10. Young shortstops with his kind of offensive capability are worth a lot. (Ask Manny Machado.)

He still would — even after a 2018 season marred by injuries, most notably Tommy John surgery and arthroscopic surgery on his left hip. Neither should inhibit him going forward, but the Dodgers are wisely being careful with him. He hasn’t appeared in a Spring Training game yet, in part due to an illness that has kept him away from camp.

The Dodgers are optimistic their young middle infielder will be ready for Opening Day. I’m not as concerned about that — if it’s a week later, whatever — but I am concerned about how good Seager can be in 2019. The Dodgers can absorb injuries to just about anyone — their flexibility, powered in part by Kiké Hernandez, is world-class. But a healthy Seager playing back at form reunites a strong left-side of the Dodger infield (with third baseman Turner) and gives them a strong offense, especially if Max Muncy mashes again. Plus, AJ Pollack and Cody Bellinger will provide power.

They’ll need to. If my fears come true and Kershaw misses extended time, the Dodger offense will need to carry the day. I like the Dodger pitching beyond their erstwhile ace — Walker Buehler could blossom into a top starter, Hyun-jin Ryu is underrated if fragile and Kenta Maeda could shine if placed in the rotation and left alone. But no one shrugs the off the loss of a future Hall of Famer near his peak. The Dodger offense will need to be good.

Fortunately, they certainly can be that — the 2018 offense was tied for the best in the sport along with the New York Yankees, boasting a 111 wRC+. They can score runs. They might need to score even more in 2019.

Dan Szymborski’s wonderful ZiPS projections for the Dodgers is optimistic about Seager: 4.6 wins above replacement, 116 OPS+. No, that offensive output wouldn’t be quite as good as what he did before, but there aren’t a lot of 4+-win shortstops in the league either. My concern is whether the hip injury will sap him of some power in the upcoming season. The elbow doesn’t worry me — but the lower-body injury does, and while power hasn’t been critical to Seager’s value, it all counts.

The Dodgers should be back in October, even if Kershaw and Seager both have rough seasons. The NL West is bad, and while the San Diego Padres might be frisky eventually, I doubt that starts this summer. But for the Dodgers, merely winning the NL West isn’t enough. Heck, reaching the World Series isn’t enough. For the Kershaw-era Dodger teams, the sand in the hourglass is running out.

 

2019 MLB Preview: Trevor Bauer and his ever-changing arsenal

Image result for trevor bauer
Trevor Bauer had a fantastic 2018 for Cleveland.

Before we dig into what the future might hold for Cleveland Indians righty Trevor Bauer, a bit of housekeeping. I’ll be doing a lot of preview content for the 2019 Major League Baseball season, including division by division breakdowns as Spring Training rolls on. You’ll get award and playoff predictions, too.

Every Monday, I’m also going to spotlight some individual players I find interesting. The reasons will vary and each post will explain further, but I think this will make for a nice break from the usual stuff we all digest each spring. Baseball is fun, so let’s have fun.

Opening Day is on the way …

***

Oh, Trevor Bauer. When he’s not making waves for his Twitter … personality (Feel free to do your own Googling), he’s probably researching new ways to increase his spin rates or break ground in some other way. From a performance standpoint, Bauer is one of the game’s more intriguing creatures; deeply analytical, he spends each offseason tooling around with the Driveline guys in their magical cave.

The stuff is just incredible, as you surely already know.  His fastball is hard and comes with truly elite spin, ranking in the 83rd percentile last season. Give a pitcher a fastball this good and you’ve set him well onto the path of excellence. Last year, Bauer broke into that class of pitcher; he finished with 6.1 fWAR (sixth best in baseball) and struck out 30.8% (also sixth best) of the batters he faced.

Suddenly the Cleveland Indians had a triumvirate of aces, coupling Bauer with two-time AL Cy Young award winner Corey Kluber and the incredibly underrated Carlos Carrasco. Plus, Mike Clevinger — another, shall we say, eccentric personality — developed into a really nice back of the rotation starter too.

But is Bauer’s growth sustainable or a blip?

I think it’s sustainable. Bauer was the third overall pick in the 2011 MLB Draft and a highly-touted prospect as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Indians, so the pedigree is hardly an issue here. He’s been around and steadily improving, but in 2018 he became great.

There’s nothing terribly fluky about his 2018 season, either — the BABIP is normal and while he gave up fewer home runs, he also developed some of his other offerings enough to mitigate the bounce-back concern. He’ll give up more bombs in 2019, but it won’t kneecap his value. The strikeout rate saw a healthy bounce, but might that also be explained by improved pitches?

Year to year, the slider is what really changed. By Fangraphs’ pitch value metric, his slider was essentially average or right around that every year in his career except 2018 when it suddenly became a really good pitch. The story here is pretty amusing, by the way. Bauer decided last offseason he didn’t like his slider (and it shows — he barely threw it in 2017), so he spent a lot of time studying pitchers who did it better, namely Marcus Stroman of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Bauer selected Stroman’s slider, because he considers it one of the elite breaking balls in baseball based on the pitch’s results on balls in play and in generating swings and misses. Although Bauer is listed as five inches taller than Stroman, he thought their arm angles were similar enough for it to work.

“I diagrammed that out in my head, how it has to spin in order to accomplish that,” Bauer said. “I went to video and checked to make sure I had a theory lined up with the actual [results]. I tried to get as much slow-mo video of [Stroman’s slider] as I could, there’s not a lot of it. I looked at what I could, and then I went in the lab and started using high-speed video of myself just iterating the axis that I wanted. Then it was pretty much about commanding it.”

First off, wow. See what I mean about Bauer and being analytical? It worked, by the way. Let’s have some fun with how hitters fared against Bauer’s new and improved slider last season:

  • Batters swung and missed 41.8% of the time against it
  • Batters produced a paltry .123 wOBA and a .171 xSLG, which for you non-stats folks means they did nothing against it

And, of course, the visual evidence:

Bauer slider

Pretty nasty. Bauer relied on the fastball (36.9%) and curve (26.7%) more, but perhaps that will change. Both remain above-average pitches, and the rising tide lifts all boats.

We’d be doing him a disservice to not mention the growth in his changeup, too. While perhaps not as dramatic as the slider, the changeup improved by leaps and bounds:

Stat 2017 2018
Pitch % 7.7 7.0
wOBA .370 .153
Whiff % 25.4 36.0
Avg Spin Rate 1646 1852
Pitch Value -4.6 4.0

So he used it a bit less — remember, the slider stole reps from most of Bauer’s arsenal — but it was a considerably better pitch year over year. That difference in wOBA is incredible. Whether he continues to develop it or not, I can’t say, but again considering Bauer’s aptitude I suspect he’s well aware.

If Bauer, 29, expands upon the improvements he made in 2018, I think he’s certainly capable of establishing himself as one of the best pitchers in the world. He’s young enough to still be considered in his peak and injuries aren’t a major concern (he’s thrown at least 175 innings the last four seasons — a good example of how times have changed when that’s considered more than acceptable).

Then again, if the slider and changeup don’t hold their newfound performance, maybe that leads to a strikeout and home run rate more in line with his 2017 record. He’d still be valuable, but not necessarily excellent. Maybe he ends up throwing less than 150 innings. There’s certainly some volatility with Bauer — that’s kind of why he’s so interesting to me.