We’ve witnessed baseball in Australia and baseball in San Diego. We’ve previewed all six divisions and counted down the days until the season’s arrival. Now that Opening Day is finally here,1 it’s time for my annual season predictions for the division races, playoff finishes, and postseason awards.
Well, except for you, Yankees and Astros. Patience!
1. Tampa Bay Rays: 91-71
2. Boston Red Sox: 89-73
3. New York Yankees: 84-78
4. Baltimore Orioles: 81-81
5. Toronto Blue Jays: 78-84
The Rays have numerous factors working in their favor this season: They decided not to trade David Price, they’ll get a full season from Wil Myers, they acquired defensive wizard catcher Ryan Hanigan and valuable super–utility man Logan Forsythe, and they might get a breakout season from Desmond Jennings, all of which could combine to make this the best team in Tampa Bay history. The Rays will hit, they’ll field an elite defense, and, as usual, they’ll trot out an excellent starting rotation. Other teams might have more stars, but the Rays lack weakness, which bodes well for their chances of winning the East.
Of course, doing so won’t be easy. The Red Sox have gone to great lengths to build a roster that also looks strong from spots 1 through 25, and a big year from dynamic shortstop Xander Bogaerts could trump whatever Tampa Bay does and lead Boston to another division title. Meanwhile, though the Yankees’ infield looks horrendous, some people might be sleeping on the starting rotation, especially if Ivan Nova breaks out and Michael Pineda stays healthy. In Baltimore, the O’s could blow by this prediction with ease if Manny Machado gets well soon and Ubaldo Jimenez continues pitching like he did in the second half of last season. Finally, the Jays seem to be suffering this preseason from overcompensation: The baseball world might have overestimated this team’s skill last year, but we might have swung too far the other way this spring. The Jays can win 85 games if a few things break right, namely getting strong contributions from 23-year-old right-hander Drew Hutchison and fellow young guns Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman later in the year.
1. Detroit Tigers: 90-72
2. Kansas City Royals: 87-75
3. Cleveland Indians: 83-79
4. Chicago White Sox: 74-88
5. Minnesota Twins: 66-96
I’m not a fan of what the Tigers did this offseason. Though the Doug Fister trade makes me wonder more and more about information asymmetry, I still think Detroit could’ve done more to fortify this roster, most notably by beating Texas in the Shin-Soo Choo sweepstakes. Using that money and then some to lock up Miguel Cabrera two years before the Tigers had to didn’t make much sense. Still, an iffy hot-stove season doesn’t change the fact that the Tigers’ rotation is loaded, that they have the best hitter on the planet, or that their overall talent level has them well positioned to win their fourth consecutive division title.
The Royals, meanwhile, need some of their vaunted young(ish) position players to finally break out if they hope to challenge for the AL Central crown, though getting a big rookie campaign from flamethrowing right-hander Yordano Ventura might also do the trick. The Indians have a very promising young pitching staff, but the team’s overall performance could suffer if Carlos Santana stays at third base as the Indians apparently intend; look for Lonnie Chisenhall to take that job back soon, and for Santana to DH. The White Sox are on the right track after snagging Jose Abreu, Matt Davidson, and Adam Eaton this offseason, but they’re probably not quite ready to contend. And as exciting as the Twins’ position-player prospects are, the team desperately needs the Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes signings to work out if it hopes to build a respectable pitching staff.
1. Oakland A’s: 88-74
2. Texas Rangers: 87-75
3. Los Angeles Angels: 84-78
4. Seattle Mariners: 78-84
5. Houston Astros: 60-102
Flip a coin to decide the winner in a battle between two very good teams that have both been decimated by injuries. For now I’m siding with the A’s, who look strong even after losing Jarrod Parker for the year. The A’s added a passel of new relievers this offseason, which could help take some strain off the starting five. If the injuries to no. 4 starter A.J. Griffin and top setup man Ryan Cook linger, however, Oakland’s vaunted depth could be severely tested.
The Rangers have sustained even more injuries, with extended absences for Jurickson Profar and Geovany Soto compounding the pitching staff’s litany of ouchies. If Texas can stay within striking distance until everyone makes it back, though, the West could have a new champion for the first time in three years. Of course, all of those Oakland and Texas injuries make the Angels an intriguing pick, though those odds will depend heavily on Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton returning to form, and everyone in the starting rotation not named C.J. Wilson (who’s already a safe bet) coming through; yes, that includes Jered Weaver, who probably can’t get away forever with throwing 86 mph fastballs that get hit and die at the warning track. The Mariners’ rotation is a giant mystery with Hisashi Iwakuma out, and will likely still require major rookie help once Iwakuma returns, making it unlikely that the Robinson Cano experiment will pan out in Year 1. And finally, while the Astros have no chance of contending, this might be the year we start to see whether their rebuilding plan has legs, with minor league mega-slugger George Springer likely to crack the big club by June, and other prospects set to follow shortly thereafter.
1. Washington Nationals: 93-69
2. Atlanta Braves: 84-78
3. New York Mets: 76-86
4. Philadelphia Phillies: 70-92
5. Miami Marlins: 68-94
The Nationals were the majority pick to win the NL East last year following a breakthrough season, only to end up far behind the Braves and out of the playoffs following a disappointing 86-win season. A year later, those predictions should pan out. The pitching remains excellent, and healthy seasons for Bryce Harper and Wilson Ramos will make a big difference for the offense, as will having Anthony Rendon start the season at second base.
I wanted to back the Braves, with B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla offering significant upside if they can simply be competent this year. However, the season-ending injuries to Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy, plus the season-opening DL stint for Mike Minor and all the associated question marks that come with it, leave Atlanta with too few reliable pitchers. Speaking of pitchers, while the Mets boast an exciting trio in Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, and Noah Syndergaard, Harvey’s injury coupled with the fact that the team’s most exciting young position player, Travis d’Arnaud, is a catcher who’s struggled mightily with injuries shows just how far the Mets still have to go. The Phillies are coming off an 89-loss season and need a rebuild, yet they’ll start five players who are 34 or older. Finally, the Marlins, like the Mets, have lots of intriguing pitching talent, but less to offer in the lineup beyond Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich.2 With prospects like Colin Moran still multiple years from coming up, the keep-him-or-trade-him decision on Stanton becomes that much tougher.
And that’s once Yelich learns to better drive the ball.
1. St. Louis Cardinals: 92-70
2. Pittsburgh Pirates: 86-76
3. Cincinnati Reds: 81-81
4. Milwaukee Brewers: 79-83
5. Chicago Cubs: 67-95
Though these projected standings don’t reflect it, the Cardinals could very well end up winning their division by a wider margin than any other team. Their lineup is loaded, their starting rotation is so good that they can afford to keep Carlos Martinez in the pen, and their depth is so enviable that they’re keeping a potentially lethal weapon like Oscar Taveras in the minors because there’s no room for him in the majors.
While the Plexiglas Principle and loss of A.J. Burnett likely forecast some pullback from last year’s Cinderella run, the Pirates’ roster should be much stronger at season’s end than it is now, given the likely promotions of top outfield prospect Gregory Polanco and top pitching prospect Jameson Taillon. Meanwhile, I ranked the Reds no. 10 overall in my offseason edition of The 30 last month, with the proviso that “I already hate this ranking.” Further reflection, a closer look at a lineup that could be truly lousy beyond Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, and multiple bullpen injuries have led me to rescind that ranking. I might also end up regretting this Brewers projection, only in this case for being too low; Ryan Braun’s return, Khris Davis’s potential breakout year, and a rotation that could be better than most expect give this team enough upside to outperform my pick by 10 games. Finally, while the Cubs did get 23 homers from Anthony Rizzo last year, his 2013 season still qualified as a mild disappointment. Right now, it looks like the Padres got the better end of the Rizzo-for–Andrew Cashner deal, and until Rizzo alters that narrative, the Cubs will probably sit in this spot.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers: 94-68
2. San Francisco Giants: 87-75
3. San Diego Padres: 80-82
4. Arizona Diamondbacks: 77-85
5. Colorado Rockies: 76-86
Thanks to the Dodgers’ quirky early schedule and Clayton Kershaw’s back injury, Hyun-Jin Ryu has already made two high-profile starts, and the rest of the world is climbing on the Ryu bandwagon. Ryu and Yasiel Puig both look like monumental bargains right now, which is a strong reminder that in addition to being able to spend a ton of money, rich teams also have the luxury of taking risks on unknown commodities. Thanks to a combination of massively paid stars and (relatively) cheap young bucks, the Dodgers are loaded. As long as Kershaw doesn’t miss too much time, they could be the best team in baseball.
If Kershaw does miss time, it could open the door for the Giants, whom I’m lumping in with the Nationals as good teams that suffered poor outcomes in 2013. In San Francisco’s case, it was something like a fifth-percentile result, and adding reliable innings by signing Tim Hudson should help the cause. The Padres, meanwhile, don’t really have any stars, but they’re also not particularly weak at any spot, giving them that A’s/Rays the-sum-is-greater-than-the-parts profile and making them an exciting sleeper team. The D-backs have one of the game’s brightest stars in Paul Goldschmidt, but the Patrick Corbin injury was a killer, especially in what figures to be a tougher NL West this season. Finally, minor league fireballers Jon Gray and Eddie Butler could help the Rockies eclipse their projection, especially if Colorado opts to be aggressive with its top two pitching prospects rather than attempting to manipulate their service time.
As always, the playoffs are a crapshoot, and the best regular-season club often falls short in October. But whatever: Predictions are fun, so let’s make a few more.
AL East champion: Rays
AL Central champion: Tigers
AL West champion: A’s
AL wild cards: Red Sox and Royals (Royals win tiebreaker over Rangers)
AL champion: Tigers
NL East champion: Nationals
NL Central champion: Cardinals
NL West champion: Dodgers
NL wild cards: Giants and Pirates
NL champion: Dodgers
World Series champion: Dodgers
AL MVP: Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers. The voters have spoken, and they’ve shown that they prefer the shiniest offensive stats to the best all-around contributions. So, it’s probably time to accept that we’ll see Cabrera over Trout … again.
AL Cy Young: Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox. Voters have shown a greater willingness to look past so-so win totals (for both the pitchers and their teams) when deciding on Cy Young Awards, which should benefit Sale this year. Yu Darvish looked like the front-runner as recently as a week ago, but his season-opening DL stint was just enough to elevate Sale to this slot. Ignore Sale’s sharp (and meaningless) drop in win-loss record from 2012 to 2013 and instead focus on his excellent and improving strikeout and walk rates. He’s got a 2.50 ERA season coming soon, so I might as well call it now.
AL Rookie of the Year: Yordano Ventura, Kansas City Royals. Masahiro Tanaka will likely be the favorite, since he’s already a polished 25-year-old and will pitch for a team that’s always in the national spotlight. So, call this a bit of a hunch pick for a 100-mph-fastball-firing terror who has huge minor league K rates on his résumé and will be given every opportunity to succeed in a rotation that looks like it has only one other potential plus pitcher.
NL MVP: Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals. We’ve already stumped for Harper based on the wunderkind’s combination of raw talent, youth, and vast potential. He’ll likely get bonus support from voters who believe that players should be rewarded or dinged based on general managers’ ability to find good players to keep their stars company.
NL Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers. He’s slated to miss at least one more start as he sits on the DL with a bad back, but the best pitcher on the planet still gets the nod for now. If Kershaw’s injury does linger, favorite sleeper picks include his teammate Ryu, St. Louis’s Shelby Miller (ignore his mysterious playoff benching and dig those tasty 2013 regular-season numbers), and Cincinnati’s Homer Bailey (the Reds had good reason to give him all that money: His trends are all improving, he’s durable, and he’s not yet 28 years old).
NL Rookie of the Year: Archie Bradley, Arizona Diamondbacks. Though Bradley will begin the season in the minors, he should be up before long, at which point he can start filling the Corbin void. Bradley, a 21-year-old right-hander, has already shown he can dominate at Double-A. Once the Snakes see a few more signs of improved command, Bradley will come up and make life miserable for big league hitters as well.