By Kevin Hahn
“Baseball has a way of ripping your heart out, stabbing it, putting it back in your chest, then healing itself just in time for spring training.” - Noah Syndergaard.
The 2017 MLB season defied nearly all logic, and crushed the hearts of many along the way. A record-breaking number home runs hit in the regular season stirred serious controversy about juiced baseballs. The Indians set the new single season win streak record at 22 consecutive games. The Dodgers became the first playoff team ever to have a double digit winning streak and a double digit losing streak in the same season. The World Series reached new levels of sheer madness and hysteria. More teams are now embracing tanking, and the MLB is losing its competitive balance as the Astros, Cubs, Dodgers, Indians, Nationals, Red Sox, and Yankees unequivocally sit atop the perch of baseball. And for the first time ever, all 30 teams will play on the same Opening Day. What does this 2018 season have in store us?
In this article, we will examine some notable storylines to watch out for:
Astros Look to Avoid World Series Hangover
“We’re not the Cubs”, Astros’ ace Dallas Keuchel declared. Aside from Keuchel’s diss, the 2018 Astros are projected to steamroll their way through the AL West and own best record in the Show with another 100 win season, according to Fangraphs. The ‘Stros bolstered their starting rotation with the addition of flamethrower Gerrit Cole and still boast one of the most lethal lineups in the AL. The majority of the players listed in the bubble chart below are expected to put up solid weighted on-base averages (league-average is .320). The size of the bubble is determined by the expected number of plate appearances and these estimates are provided by ZiPS projections:
Moreover, all of their primary hitters are projected to post an wRC+ above the league average mark of 100:
And not a single pitcher in their starting rotation is projected to post an ERA and FIP over 4.00:
These 2018 Astros are deeper and scarier than ever before.
Can the Dodgers replicate the Kansas City 2014-15 blueprint? Or will they suffer the fate of the 2010-11 Texas Rangers?
Despite losing the heart and soul of the team, Justin Turner, until May, the Dodgers are still expected to claim a 6th consecutive NL West Division crown with most of their pennant-winning roster intact. Projected to still win 93 games, the embarrassment of riches provided by their organizational depth and versatility will allow them to sustain considerable blows to their starting lineup.
When healthy, the lefty heavy rotation of Kershaw-Wood-Maeda-Hill-Ryu is easily top 5 in baseball, but all of these listed players have a concerning injury history. As we've seen in recent years, the Friedman-Zaidi brain trust can construct a reliable bullpen from essentially nothing. Dumpster diving for unheralded hurlers has become a breeding ground for pitching reclamation projects for pitching coach Rick Honeycutt. Year after year, the relief corp has been led by Kenley Jansen, who is the undisputedly best reliever in baseball and even regarded by some as the second coming of Mariano Rivera. Offensively, Chris Taylor, Corey Seager, Justin Turner, and Cody Bellinger form a powerful leadoff quartet. A matured Yasiel Puig solidifies the back of the lineup along with the Dodgers’ platoon options in Kike Hernandez, Chase Utley, Andrew Toles, and Austin Barnes. This 2018 team may not reach the stratospheric highs of the 2017 team, but they are determined more than ever to return to the Fall Classic and erase memories of last year’s Game 7.
However, the Giants season is in jeopardy after losing ace southpaw Madison Bumgarner to a fractured left hand until early June at least. The Padres aren’t going anywhere until more of their loaded farm system graduates to the big leagues. The Diamondbacks and Rockies, both of whom are projected to be approximately .500 ballclubs, probably will not win the division but are still serious contenders for the NL wildcard spots if their rosters can stay healthy.
Will the Nationals finally make it past the NLDS? Or will they continue to be baseball’s version of the Lob City Clippers?
For the Nationals, the NL East division championship is practically handed to them.
The Phillies are currently in their rebuild-by-tanking process although their young talent is slowly starting to surface. The Braves are also in a similar position with inchoate Ronald Acuna waiting in the wings. The Mets, when healthy, possess a formidable pitching staff but are held back by their anemic offense. The Marlins have been absolutely gutted from the inside this offseason and are practically fielding half a minor league team on Opening Day (Courtesy of Derek Jeter).
All the Nats have to do is stay the course until October. Ideally, with a fully recovered Daniel Murphy back in the postseason lineup, they are a force to be reckoned with, so long as they don’t find another way to self-implode. The Win Probability chart, which measures each a team’s probability of winning a game in a play-by-play, base-out state format, depicts the Nationals’ postseason meltdowns in their past three winner-take-all Division Series Game 5’s at home:
At certain junctures in these games, the Nationals had a probability of winning as high as 96% in 2012 NLDS Game 5, 77% in 2016 NLDS Game 5, 82% in 2017 NLDS Game 5. Although the 2012 Nationals blew a nearly insurmountable 6-0 lead in Game 5, they gave us a glimpse into just how potent this talented young team could be in the coming years. This team finished with the best record in the National League. Bryce Harper was not even 20 years old yet, and a formidable 27-and-under trio comprised of Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman, and Stephen Strasburg anchored the team’s starting pitching.
From 2016 onward with a roster now featuring a fearsome one-two punch in Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, a stacked hitting corps in Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman and speedster Trea Turner, it is difficult to fathom that a team this talented has not even made it past the NL division series in the last two years. The window is closing for the Nationals, who must act quickly before potentially losing Harper and Murphy in free agency after this season and Stephen Strasburg after 2019.
Will the Indians end their 69 year championship drought?
The Indians are expected to three-peat as AL Central champs with 94 wins, according to Fangraphs. The 2017 Indians team virtually broke the game last season during their 22 game win streak and finished the season with 102 wins. Yet, after blowing a 3-1 lead in the 2016 World Series, the Indians inexplicably blew a commanding 2-0 lead in the 2017 ALDS against the Yankees. Cleveland now owns the longest active World Series title drought and looks poised for October redemption. Sensational shortstop Francisco Lindor, versatile Jose Ramirez, and power hitter Edwin Encarnacion are the backbone of Cleveland’s offense. Like the Astros, the Indians possess a strong, but balanced starting rotation. Corey Kluber is Cleveland’s undisputed ace and leads this rotation alongside Carlos Carrasco. Meanwhile, the supporting cast in Bauer, Salazar, Tomlin, and Clevinger fortify the back of the rotation, as all of these pitchers are more than capable of posting respectable sub-4.00 ERAs and FIPs. Furthermore, their bullpen is comprised of lockdown reliever Andrew Miller and a lights-out closer in Cody Allen. This Indians team virtually checks off every box.
The Minnesota Twins could make things interesting should they beat the regular season projections for a second consecutive year, although losing Santana until May does complicate their start to the season. Minnesota has brought in a lot of new faces to their clubhouse at a relatively affordable cost during the offseason. Their starting rotation is now one spot deeper after acquiring Odorizzi to be their #3 starter behind Ervin Santana and Jose Berrios. There is promising young talent in agile outfielder Byron Buxton, Eddie Rosario, Jorge Polanco and Miguel Sano. Face of the franchise Joe Maurer still provides premium hitting for a catcher-turned-first-baseman.
On the other hand, Chicago, Kansas City and Detroit are definitely out of contention after dealing away their franchise centerpieces as they look to rebuild their farm systems. Out of the three, the White Sox possess the most major-league ready young talent. Look no further than Yoan Moncada. Nevertheless, these teams still have a ways to go before they become serious contenders.
Two Horse Races in the AL East and NL Central
It will go right down to the wire in the AL East between the Yankees and Red Sox. Per Fangraphs, New York and Boston are projected to win 95 and 93 games, respectively. The runner-up will most likely claim one of the two AL wildcard spots. The Yankees arguably have the best bullpen in baseball, led by flamethrower Aroldis Chapman, and a robust setup corps of Betances, Kahnle, Robertson, Warren, and Green. Last season, they had the third-lowest ERA (3.34), the lowest average against (.204), the highest whiff rate (29.1 percent), and an absurd 9.2 WAR. Moreover, Luis Severino established himself as the ace of the rotation, at just 24 years of age. Oh, they also have Giancarlo Stanton now. Together, Judge and Stanton have- and will- hit more homers than entire teams. The Evil Empire is officially back.
On the other hand, the Red Sox have put together two solid seasons in 2016 and 2017, with only 2 disappointing ALDS exits to show for. Like New York, Boston has also stocked up on power by signing J.D. Martinez to go with the promising prospects Rafael Devers and Andrew Benintendi. Mookie Betts has a George Springer type of effect on this Boston offense as the energizing leadoff hitter. With the starting rotation, strikeout machine Chris Sale leads the pack, followed by Price, Porcello, Velasquez and Johnson. Bounceback years from Price and Porcello are crucial to the Red Sox’s playoff push.
The Blue Jays, who are expected to win 87 games, are still an unpredictable dark horse that could contend for a wild card spot. Much of these playoff hopes are contingent upon another MVP-caliber season from Josh Donaldson, an even bigger breakout year from Marcus Stroman, and bounceback years from J.A. Happ, Aaron Sanchez, and Marco Estrada. Winning the AL East, however, would be a Herculean task for this roster even with the help of sensational prospect Vlad Guerrero Jr.
The Baltimore Orioles, expected to win 78 games, is out of contention and has much bigger things to worry about: Manny Machado. Fearing that Machado may just walk away from them in free agency, the Orioles are contemplating a midsummer trade to at least get something in return for their Gold Glove infielder. Tampa Bay… well, they just became the Marlins of the AL. Gotta love tanking.
The NL Central faces a similar situation, although many predict the Cubs to win the division by a larger margin than that of the AL East. Projected to win 93 games according to Fangraphs, the Cubs look to bounce back from their supposed World Series hangover, even though making their third consecutive NLCS the following year is no small feat. The young core in Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo speaks for itself, but the biggest area of concern for Joe Maddon’s ballclub is the starting rotation. With the loss of Jake Arrieta to the Phillies, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks must re-channel their 2016 ace forms. Yu Darvish must remain healthy and rediscover his pre-Tommy John surgery self that made him an AL Cy Young runner-up in 2013.
The Cardinals are still the lurking threat, projected to win 85 games this year. They have fortified their bullpen with Dominic Leone and Luke Gregerson, and boosted their offense with the addition of breakout star Marcell Ozuna. A 4.8 WAR player in 2017, the 27-year-old outfielder erupted for 37 HR’s, 124 RBI’s and a slash line of 0.312/0.376/.548. Even more so, he produced an outstanding .388 wOBA and 142 wRC+ by sabermetric standards. A .355 BABIP in 2017, considerably higher than his career mark of .327, could be a possible reason for Ozuna’s stellar year. The key to a strong 2018 is whether he can sustain this mark and replicate his 2017 form. If so, then the Cardinals could very well propel themselves from 83 wins last year to 87-89 win territory and put some pressure on the Cubs.
The 2018 Brewers, like the 2018 Jays, are a dark horse in their respective division. With the notable additions of Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, Milwaukee is determined to contend and looks to exceed their projection of 78 wins this season. Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Pirates have adopted the increasingly popular rebuild-by-tanking approach after trading then-franchise cornerstone Andrew McCutchen to the Giants. Lastly, the Reds are going nowhere, while each fruitless season means another precious season of Joey Votto gone to waste.
Preventing the Sophomore Slump
Cody Bellinger and Aaron Judge spearheaded the Dodgers’ and Yankees’ youth movements last season. Bellinger broke the National League rookie record for home runs with 39 dingers, while Aaron Judge not only took home the AL home run crown but also the Major League rookie record for home runs with 52 long balls. What remains to be seen is whether or not they can prove the doubters wrong by following up their rookie campaigns with strong sophomore seasons.
Bellinger is expected to produce similar numbers to those of his abbreviated 2017 season. After producing a league average .299 BABIP in 2017, it is understandable that we don’t see a substantial deviation in Bellinger’s 2018 projections from his rookie year.
However, this gets more complicated with Aaron Judge. A drop in WAR from 8.2 to 4.8 means Judge is due for some serious regression this season. A significant factor that comes into play is the 0.357 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) that All Rise sustained in his first full season in the big leagues. Given that a league-average BABIP is usually .300, an extreme BABIP usually means one of two things:
Boom or Bust?
It has not been a great spring training for Japanese phenom Shohei Ohtani, on both ends of the game. Despite showing frontline talent as a starting pitcher, Ohtani has been getting shelled by opposing teams. Perhaps the differences in properties of American and Japanese baseballs could play a factor in Ohtani’s difficult pitching transition. Most projections have him as roughly a 3.50 ERA/FIP pitcher worth 3 WAR to an Angels team that will most likely contend for an AL wild card spot since the Astros are a juggernaut in the AL West. As a hitter, Ohtani’s long swing and underdeveloped hitting tools have put him at a disadvantage when facing major league pitching. After hitting .108 (3 for 28) this spring, several scouts have went as far as saying that Ohtani cannot has never seen a “good” curveball in his life and is better off starting the season in the minors if he wants to improve his hitting. Of course, we should take caution in our judgements because spring training performances are a small sample size and have very weak correlation with the regular season. Ohtani could very well prove everyone wrong and seamlessly adjust both his pitching and hitting on-the-go during the season. But for any highly-anticipated, electrifying player, a spring training like Ohtani’s does raise some concerns. It’s beyond our control. All we can do is wait and see.
Opening Day is just one day away. We’re ready for you, baseball.
Sources: Baseball Reference, Fangraphs