Astros, Cubs likely to contend for World Series glory

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Within a few days the 2018 Major League Baseball season begins in historic fashion as all 30 teams will open the season this Thursday, March, 29.  That is, if the weather cooperates and that is far from certain.

The general consensus of most astute baseball observers is that there’s a significant gap between the top 7 and the remaining nearly two dozen of baseball’s 30 teams.

The defending World Series Champion Houston Astros and the team that won the 2016 Fall Classic a season earlier, the Chicago Cubs, are among that elite group of teams expected to contend for the 2018 World Series title.

Joining that duo are the Los Angeles Dodgers, Washington Nationals,  Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees. Of the other 23 teams, three are expected to provide three of the four Wild Card teams to join either the Red Sox or Yankees, whichever of them finishes in second place in the AL East. The opinions as to which three teams will earn Wild Cards are varied. But there are a handful of teams that almost certainly will not earn a Wild Card.

The Miami Marlins sold off or traded most of their offensive talent in the off season and will be hard pressed to avoid 100 losses. At the Westgate the Season Wins Total for Miami is the lowest of all 30 teams, 63.5. Only one other team is held at under 70 wins with the Detroit Tigers at 65.5. Detroit’s AL Central rival, Kansas City, is at exactly 70 wins.

The defending champion Astros are held in the highest regard of all 30 teams with a Season Wins Total of 97.5.  The rest of the “Magnificent Seven” each is expected to win more than 90 with the Dodgers at 95.5, the Yankees and Indians each at 94.5, the Nationals at 94, the Cubs at 93.5 and the Red Sox at 91.5.

After Boston there is a 5.5 game to the eighth most highly regarded team. St Louis, at a modest 86.

In forecasting the teams to have the most successful seasons and to make the Playoffs it’s always easiest to go with the teams that have proven to be strong over the past season or two, barring any major changes in roster composition due to trades, retirements, the attainment of free agency, suspensions and key injuries.  Of those factors the injury factor is the one variable that is virtually impossible to predict but which could have most significant impact.

The great emphasis I place is on starting pitching whether it be in forecasting season long performance or handicapping the playing of an individual game.  It all begins with pitching and both the quality and depth of a team’s rotation. Over the years the weight given to starting pitching has decreased as the game has changed and bullpens have been used much more extensively.

Complete games by starting pitchers have become rarities and starters capable of lasting between 6 and 7 innings on average are often now considered elite.

Offensive production has varied over the years and in recent seasons the home run has enjoyed a resurgence in the post steroid era and home run hitters remain extremely desirable even at the expense of the generally extraordinarily high number of strikeouts that occur when the baseball is not being launched over the fence.

 The increased acceptance of sabermetrics that dig deeper than ever before into the statistics that shape the game have influenced the way teams are built, how lineups are constructed and how pitchers are being used.

Beginning next week I shall preview a trio of weekend series with thoughts on which matchups should offer favorable opportunities for profit at the betting windows. Let’s see how starting rotations unfold over the first weekend of the season.

As to how the season may unfold, let’s take a brief tour of baseball’s six divisions with an eye towards finding one team in each league that may exceed their Season Wins Total and a team in each league that may well fall short along with predictions on the Division winners, the Wild Cards and the ultimate 2018 World Series champion.

The American League East is the Division most likely to produce a true pennant race deep into September with Boston and the Yankees both loaded with talent.  With former Marlin Giancarlo Stanton joining Judge and Gary Sanchez the Bronx Bombers may threaten the all time single season team home run record.  Add a solid rotation headed by Luis Severino and perhaps baseball’s best bullpen and the Yankees have a real shot to go further than last season when they came within one game of advancing to the World Series.

Boston’s roster is not quite as strong nor as deep as New York’s but the top of their starting rotation is every bit as good with Chris Sale and David Price arguably the top two lefty starters in the AL.  Craig Kimbrell is an elite closer and the Red Sox should keep pace with the Yankees all season. 

Toronto and Baltimore should battle for third place but it is unlikely either will contend for a Wild Card.  With the departure of two of Tampa Bay’s top three starters from last season the Rays handicap as a distant fifth place team, especially with the trade of perhaps the best player in franchise history, Evan Longoria, to the Giants.

Cleveland should run away with the AL Central with Minnesota challenging for a repeat of last season’s Wild Card which resulted from a 26 wins improvement over 2016.  Often we see a reversal from such teams but the decline of Division rivals Detroit and Kansas City combined with the Twins having won 83 games just two seasons ago suggests any reversal might not be that steep.  The Tigers and Royals are committed to rebuilding.  For the Tigers it officially began with the trading of ace Justin Verlander to Houston last summer.  For the Royals the departure of free agents Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain following last season was the signal.  The team that could surprise is Chicago.  The White Sox have a talented young roster that has plenty of upside but their ascension to Playoff contender status may still be a season away.

Houston appears far and away the best team in the AL West.  Joining Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander at the top of the rotation is Gerrit Cole who should benefit greatly going from the non-contending culture of Pittsburgh to the totally opposite culture committed to winning that has developed in Houston. 

Seattle and the LA Angels have talented rosters but both teams have been disappointing over the past half-decade.  The hype that preceded the arrival of Japan’s Shohei Ohtani may have been at best premature but if he is able to adequately adjust to the increased level of talent he will face in the US, both as a hitter and a pitcher, the Angels could, with one of the top talents in baseball, Mike Trout, make a run at a Wild Card.

 Both Oakland and Texas have too many holes and the lack of depth to make more than even a .500 record a reasonable goal.

Washington should again rule the NL East with the real season beginning for them once the Playoffs begin. 

The Nats have won at least 95 games in 3 of the last 4 seasons but the goal of reaching, much less winning, a World Series has eluded them.  The New York Mets figure to offer the Nationals their greatest competition and if the starting rotation can stay healthy the Mets have the talent to certainly earn a Wild Card and potentially repeat their 90 wins season of 2015 or the 87 of a season later before falling to 70 wins last season when, of the projected Opening Day rotation, only Jacob deGrom managed to start more than 17 games (31) and ace Noah Syndergaard was lost for the season after just 7 starts.

 Both Atlanta and Philadelphia are on the improve with the Phillies, bolstered by the recent signing of former Cubs ace Jake Arrieta, having the better chance to show marked improvement this season.  As discussed earlier, Miami will be challenged to avoid 100 losses as the new Derek Jeter led ownership group is effectively rebuilding the franchise from scratch.

The Chicago Cubs remain the team to beat in the NL Central despite winning just 92 games last season after seasons of 103 and 97 wins the two prior seasons.  The departure of Arrieta from the starting rotation is more than offset by the signing of Yu Darvish and the trade last summer that brought lefty Jose Quintana over from the crosstown White Sox.  The offense remains potent with both Kris Byant and Anthony Rizzo likely to again be in the MVP conversation. 

Milwaukee and St Louis are the closest to challenging the Cubs with the Cardinals having a better overall roster than the Brewers and thus more likely to contend for a Wild Card.  After winning between 90 and 100 games from 2013 to 2015 St Louis dropped to 86 and 83 wins the last two seasons.

Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are both projected to win at least 10 fewer games than their three Division rivals and it would be a stretch to see either the Reds or Pirates challenging for even a .500 record.  Considering the moves made by the Pirates in the offseason weaken both their offense and  pitching, the Reds are more likely to avoid the NL Central cellar.

The LA Dodgers led baseball with 104 regular season wins and came within one game of winning the World Series.  Led by perennial Cy Young Award contender (and 3 time winner) Clayton Kershaw the Dodgers are the favorites to repeat their Division title.

But both Arizona and Colorado, winners of 93 and 87 games last season, both figure to give the Dodgers a challenge.  The Giants bolstered their offense by adding both Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen and I was prepared to call for the Giants to win the Division until last Friday.  Ace Madison Bumgarner, who missed nearly half of last season due to a dirt bike injury, suffered a broken left hand in his final spring training start and is expected to miss from 6 to 8 weeks.  Number 3 starter, Jeff Samardzija, suffered a pectoral strain and is expected to miss a month.  If the Giants can be at or within a couple of days of .500 on Memorial Day, they would have enough time to get back into the race. 

San Diego is acquiring some nice young talent and did add veteran presence in the form of former Padre Chase Headley and free agent Eric Hosmer.  San Diego should improve on last season’s 71 wins which was a 3 game improvement over a season earlier.

Predictions

Division winners are no surprise – the Chicago Cubs, LA Dodgers and Washington Nationals in the senior circuit and Cleveland, Houston and the New York Yankees in the American League.

The predicted National League Wild Cards are Arizona and the New York Mets with Boston and Seattle.

The call from here is for Washington to defeat the Cubs for the National League pennant and for Houston to defeat Cleveland in the American League.

And for the first time since the Yankees won World Series titles in 1998, 1999 and 2000 I expect that we will have a repeat Champion as the Astros defeat the Nationals in six games.

As to teams to exceed or fall short of their Season Win Totals projections the call is for Baltimore to exceed it’s projection of 71.5 wins in the AL and for the Mets to exceed 82.5 wins in the AL.

Disappointments

The Angels to fall short of 84.5 wins in the AL and for Pittsburgh to win fewer than 73.5 games in the NL.

About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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