Batter Up! Yankees, Dodgers in October?

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“Play Ball!” — the two most popular words in spring, have arrived. 

Technically, the 2019 baseball season got underway late last week with a pair of games in Japan between AL West rivals Oakland and Seattle. Both games counted in the standing. And for at least a week, the 2-0 Mariners can claim the best record in baseball. 

As I do on the eve of a new season, I go through the exercise of attempting to forecast how the season will unfold and play out with predictions of the 10 teams I expect to make the playoffs come fall. 

A baseball season is twice as long as both NHL and NBA seasons with teams generally playing five or six games a week and, on occasion, playing for longer stretches without days off. This is especially true during August and September when teams often play on games designed to be off days to make up games postponed — generally due to weather — from earlier in the season. 

As with other sports, injuries will have a major impact on a team’s fortunes both in terms of the number of key players who miss time due to injuries and the severity of those injuries and time missed. Depth, including a team’s farm system, can often mitigate if not overcome those injuries as will in-season trades involving generally proven veteran players from non-contenders in exchange for prospects in contending teams’ systems who may not be quite yet ready to contribute at the major league level. 

A major change implemented this season will be the end of trades in August following the July 31 trade deadline. Ostensibly this will force teams to decide if they are contenders or non-contenders prior to the final two full months of the season.

Here are my thoughts on the six divisional races and the five teams from each league that I predict will participate in the playoffs.

NL East

This may be considered the strongest division in baseball, save for the Miami Marlins. Atlanta, the New York Mets, Philadelphia and Washington each have Season Win Totals (SWT) ranging from 85.5 to 89. Miami is at 63.5.

The division winner may well come down to which teams feasts best on the Marlins as the other four teams figure to cannibalize one another. It likely means the division winner would be seeded third in the NL playoffs.

The Mets and Washington have the best pitching in the Division. Atlanta and Philadelphia have the more potent offenses. Over the course of the regular season, pitching strength is a huge edge largely due to the way the modern game is managed.

My forecast calls for the Mets to win the division but for both Philadelphia and Washington to earn the two NL Wild Cards. Philly may start the season slowly as their new key additions (including Las Vegan Bryce Harper) get acclimated to their new environs, but expect the Phillies to hit their stride as Memorial Day approaches.

NL Central

The Chicago Cubs have been the class of the Central for the past several seasons with both St Louis and Milwaukee and to a lesser extent Pittsburgh also enjoying recent success. Only Cincinnati has failed to win at least 90 games in any of the past five seasons and, in fact, has only won as many as 76 games just once in the past five.

But the Reds were very active in this past offseason. They may be the most entertaining last-place team in baseball, but should improve upon last season’s 67 wins the addition of several veteran pitchers. The oddsmakers certainly think so as their SWT is a robust 78.5.

Milwaukee likely will not repeat its success of last season and the Cubs seem poised to decline with a roster that is much weaker than the one that won the 2016 World Series. Pittsburgh should contend for a winning record but the team that I see winning the division is St Louis. The addition of Paul Goldschmidt gives a huge boost to the offense and the pitching staff has a nice mixture of veterans and youth.

NL West

The Los Angeles Dodgers should win a seventh consecutive NL West title and by a comfortable margin. Their SWT of 93 is 8.5 more than projected second-place Colorado.

The team to watch for continued improvement throughout the season is San Diego. The Padres bolstered their roster with the signing of Manny Machado and there is a nice blend of youth and veteran presence to fuel enthusiasm. Pitching is a concern.

Arizona declined from 93 wins in 2017 to 82 last season and considering the players lost over the winter another double-digit decline in wins is possible, although their SWT calls for a more modest decline to 75.5.  San Francisco has fallen since winning its third World Series title in five seasons in 2014. The past two seasons have been especially rough, with the Giants winning just 71 and 73 games. There may not be much improvement this season, especially if ace pitcher Madison Bumgarner is traded by the July 31 deadline.

AL East

The New York Yankees won 100 games in 2018. But they finished in second place. And did so by eight games. Perhaps as remarkable is that Tampa Bay finished with 90 wins but finished 18 games out of first.

Of course, with 108 wins, the Boston Red Sox deserved to win the World Series and did just that for their fourth title since breaking their 86-year “Curse” in 2004.

It’s not likely two teams will both reach 100 wins this season. In fact the Yankees’s SWT is 96.5 with Boston at 94.5. While it is understandable to expect both teams to regress from the high levels of last season, Boston may show the greater decline given the weakened state of their bullpen with the departure of still unsigned free agent closer Craig Kimbrell. He could still resign with the Sox but there no such indications as of yet.

The Yankees bolstered their rotation with the acquisition of lefty James Paxton from Seattle and with both lineups being potent the Yankees rate the nod in this division on the strength of the relative changes in their pitching staffs.

Tampa may not reach the 90 wins of last season but the Rays are still the third best team in the Division and are my choice to earn the second AL Wild Card with Boston earning the first. Toronto finished 17 games behind Tampa with 73 wins and the Blue Jays are expected to finish with roughly the same number this season with their SWT at 74. But even at 74 wins the Blue Jays would still finish fourth by double digits over last-place Baltimore.

AL Central

This was arguably the worst division in baseball last season and one of the worst Divisions over the past decade.

None are expected to be significantly improved this season although each is expected to win more games this season. The White Sox might make the biggest jump as its SWT is 74. The interesting team to watch is Minnesota. Several off-season additions added strength to the offense and their young pitching staff continues to develop. The Twins were just 78-84 last season after earning a Wild Card in 2017 with 85 wins.

Cleveland got weaker over the winter both on the mound and at the plate. The Indians still have two of the top starting pitchers in the AL with Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer, but if things are not going well in mid- season, one, or both, might be traded as the Indians seem to be in at least the early stages of rebuilding.  The call is for the Twins to win the Central.

AL West

Houston is to the AL West what the Dodgers are to the NL West in terms of being head and shoulders above their competition.

After winning between 56 and 70 games from 2011 through 2014, Houston has had four straight winning seasons including 101 wins in 2017 and 103 last season plus the 2017 World Series title.

Oakland may have been a one-season wonder in 2018, winning 97 games after winning just 75, 69 and 68 games the prior three seasons. That sentiment is reflected in the SWT of 83. That’s the SWT as the Los Angeles Angels who have Mike Trout but not much else and the Halos appear especially weak in pitching. Behind the A’s and Angels there is a double digit drop off in expectations with Seattle’s SWT of 72.5 and Texas expected to finish last with 71 wins.

It would be no surprise if Houston reaches 100 wins for a third straight season and garners the top AL Playoff seed with nearly half its schedule against its four Division foes.

I often like to refer to the opening month of the season as the time when teams that will be favorites in August are often underdogs in April. 

That is because of the uncertainty that accompanies many teams at the start of a season in all sports there is a time lag before teams establish their true identities for a given season.

Sure, many of the favorites will perform as such but a handful may fall short, if not way short, of expectations. Other teams, often considered as doomed from the start, will surprise and exceed expectations.

While a number of teams that start strongly will fade come July and August – and vice versa – several teams that surprise either pleasantly or disappointingly in April and May will continue that level of play deep into the late summer and be in playoff contention in mid September.

We generally do not know which teams will fill those roles this season but one way I like to approach the first few weeks of the season is to look to back nicely priced underdogs, generally those priced at plus 150 or above.

If we hit just two of every five underdogs priced at exactly plus 150 we break even despite winning just 40 percent. 

That same 40 percent will usually result in a nice profit as there will be games in which the underdog is priced at higher than plus 150 and perhaps at plus 200 or higher.

I almost always list starting pitchers so that if there is a late change I am not locked into the play at what could be a significantly different price.

It will be very interesting to monitor how starting pitchers are used this season given the trend that was popularized last season. 

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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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