Today’s the day that baseball nerds, such as myself, get overexcited for, for one hiarticular reason. Today is the first day of genuine Spring Training baseball games, in which professional hitters will step into the box against professional pitchers. Now, that doesn’t mean all of these athletes are Major League talents, drastically watering down the product on the field, at times, but they are all professional players competing on visual or audible outlets for us to ingest. In the grand scheme of things, the games today will make little impact on the 2018 Major League Baseball season, but it’s something for us, especially those of us in northern states where the weather still isn’t baseball friendly, to hang our, in some cases, literal hats on.
Despite the fact that Opening Day is still 35 days away, it only feels natural to get my season predictions out there on this glorious, unofficial first day of Spring. Injuries will likely occur, and big name free agents still don’t have homes, and those eventual signings could change the landscape of entire divisions in the next five weeks, but I’ll look toward October with the understanding that I have today, Friday, February 23.
National League East
Winner: Washington Nationals
This division, as it’s been for the past few seasons, is the Nationals to lose. The back-to-back division champs, who have also won 90 or more games in consecutive seasons, will be on the right side of a less-than-stellar division in 2018. Should the Mets’ pitching staff remain relatively healthy, they could be a viable Wild Card contender, but the offensive productivity isn’t quite there yet to usurp the Nationals as division frontrunners. The pitching staff, barring any unforeseen injuries, will still be a top five staff in the league, headlined by the reigning Cy Young Award winner, Max Scherzer, and paced by Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, who looks to continue his statistical resurgence, after having his best season in 2017 since a 21 win campaign in 2012. Should Trea Turner remain healthy for 162 games, it’s not inconceivable to think he could swipe 70 bags, after stealing 46 in just 98 games last year. Bryce Harper is in the final year of his deal and is set to make unspeakable money in the free agent market. Expect him to have a career year before signing a $500 million contract next winter. It will be a two team race throughout most of the season, with the Phillies a close, but not threatening third. The Braves entire franchise was ravaged by the penalties it suffered late in 2017, but the Major League roster will still be more competitive than the tanking Marlins, who will compete for the worst record in baseball.
New York Mets
National League Central
Winner: Chicago Cubs
The National League Central may be one of the most competitive divisions in baseball this year, with three teams that could easily make the playoffs. I’ve kept this mindset to myself for much of the offseason, but I have an odd feeling about the St. Louis Cardinals in the best way possible. There’s something about that roster that makes me swoon going into 2018. The addition of Marcell Ozuna will provide pop to an offense that uncharacteristically lacked it in 2017, finishing 18th in homeruns hit. Maybe more surprising was the mundane batting average that the Cardinals finished with, which was good for just 14th in the league. Paul DeJong will need an impressive sophomore season to help keep pace in the division this year.
The Brewers also improved their roster this offseason, bringing in two starting outfielders in former-Royal, Lorenzo Cain, and trading for Christian Yellich in the span of three days. This creates a healthy problem, as a logjam of talent now exists in Milwaukee’s outfield, with Cain and Yellich joining Keon Broxton and Domingo Santana. Santana can also play first base, but than it creates an issue with the revived Eric Thames. Effectively the Brewers have five players for three spots. While it’s not a bad problem to have, it does create a separation of talent from the field. Zach Davies, Jimmy Nelson and Chase Anderson make for an entertaining front three, which all succeeded in tandem in 2017. The trio will need to remain equally successful this year to compete in the division.
While I love the Cardinals for a huge leap forward in 2018, and the Brewers could have one of the more explosive starting nine in all baseball, it still comes down to pitching this season, and that’s why I’m taking the Chicago Cubs to win a tightly contested Central this year. Despite allowing Jake Arrieta to remain on the market to this point, the Cubs have added two arms that could be better than Arrieta in 2018 anyway, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood. While the Darvish deal may be a head scratcher based on its price and longevity, for this season alone, it was a great move. Add the new pair with Jon Lester, and the Cubs still have the best pitching staff in the Central. The bullpen isn’t nearly as feared as it has been in years past, but it’s still good enough to close out plenty of games. I’ll take the Cubs in a very tightly contested division.
St. Louis Cardinals
National League West
Winner: Los Angeles Dodgers
It may be a total cop out, but I’m taking all three 2017 division winners to repeat as champs. Despite losing out of the Yu Darvish sweepstakes, or intentionally not participating, the Dodgers pitching staff was lessened, but not depleted entirely. Headlined by perennial Cy Young candidate Clayton Kershaw, the staff features an ageless Rich Hill and an Alex Wood coming off his best season to date. While I don’t know that Wood will go 16-3 with a 2.7 ERA again in 2018, he shouldn’t take a step so far back that the Dodgers can’t remain on top. The offense is loaded with a mix of young talent and veterans. The order will likely hit a ton of homeruns and strike out a good deal, but the ends will certainly justify the means for this Dodgers team. The bullpen was picked apart this offseason, as Tony Watson, Luis Avilan and Brandon Morrow have all found new homes. This is certainly concerning, as Kenley Jansen, Tony Cingrani and Pedro Baez can only throw so many innings.
the Diamondbacks are the key cog in this divisional shake up in 2018, even after losing out of J.D. Martinez. The pitching staff may be the second best in the National League, and will certainly be among the top five. Zack Godley could be as good a number five as any in the league, and the talent of the staff only gets better from there. With Fernando Rodney leaving for Minnesota, Archie Bradley will likely slide into the closer’s role this season. It’ll be Braden Shipley and Randall Delgado who make or break the middle innings for the Diamondbacks this year. Barring unforeseen circumstances, I’m willing to almost call the D’Backs a lock to make the postseason in some form in 2018.
Los Angeles Dodgers
San Francisco Giants
San Diego Padres
National League Wild Cards
Arizona Diamondbacks, St. Louis Cardinals
As I just mentioned, I have a hard time believing the Diamondbacks aren’t destined for the playoffs in some capacity in 2018. I just don’t know if they’re quite good enough to take over the NL West. I do believe, however, that they’ll host a Wild Card play-in game for the second straight year. This year, it won’t be divisional foe, the Colorado Rockies, but instead, the aforementioned surprise team, the St. Louis Cardinals. Carlos Martinez versus Zack Greinke would certainly be a fun one with everything at stake.
American League East
Winner: New York Yankees
The AL East is peculiar because the hot commodity is the offensive juggernauts, the New York Yankees. We all know Stanton and Judge will be prolific on that little league sized field, and the two could combine for 120 homeruns without hesitation. The Red Sox’s pitching staff, at least in the five starters, could be better than the Yankees’, though. With equally talented surrounding casts, the remainder of the offenses may become a wash. With a check in superstar for the Yankees, one in starting pitching for the Red Sox, and no clear winners in the remainder of positional talent, the division comes down to the bullpens, and on the surface, the closers, when both at the top of their games, are untouchable. So we must dive deeper, and take a look at the remainder of each bullpen. In crunch time, I’d take Dellin Betances, David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle over Joe Kelly and young guns, Austin Maddox and Carson Smith. Therefore, I’m taking the Yankees in a tight divisional race that will remind us of the early 2000’s. It might get ugly, the rivalry will likely be renewed and these two teams will play on Sunday Night Baseball every other weekend in August and September. The Red Sox and Yankees will both make the postseason this year, but as it stands today, the Yankees offense and lights out bullpen are the difference between hosting a Wild Card game and an ALCS Game 1.
New York Yankees
Boston Red Sox
Toronto Blue Jays
Tampa Bay Rays
American League Central
Winner: Cleveland Indians
It’s going to take either a catastrophic Indians’ meltdown or an unbelievable run by another Central team to see any team but Cleveland win this division in 2018. The Indians may not win triple digit games for a second consecutive season, or 25 games in a row, but they’ll certainly get close to the former. The entire starting pitching staff returns, and all but Carlos Santana remain in Cleveland from last year’s starting offense. The bullpen will be less effective after losing Joe Smith to Houston and Bryan Shaw to Colorado, but the team will lean more heavily on Tyler Olson in his first full Major League season. Ryan Merritt will also be called upon, should he make the Major League roster out of camp. He’s out of minor league options, which will require him to either remain in AAA or stick with the Indians once he makes the roster. Any demotion back to AAA would force Merritt through waivers, where he’ll certainly be snatched up. The solid starting pitching staff, a continually prominent back end of the bullpen and strong offense, matched with non-existence competition in the Central, should allow the Indians to win this division easily by double digit games. The Twins are set up for regression in 2018, and the Royals, White Sox and Tigers all have the potential to lose 100 games. The only thing that may prevent that from taking place is the 38 games they’ll play against each other. This division won’t be close.
Chicago White Sox
Kansas City Royals
American League West
Winner: Houston Astros
The West could be a intriguing division, but not for the divisional crown itself. The Angels, Rangers and Mariners all have competitive rosters, but they won’t compete for the division. The Houston Astros have that on near total lock down. The Astros lose exactly one starting pitcher from 2017. That’s it. And, by the way, they rectified that by adding Gerrit Cole. Add Cole to a rotation that already included Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers, and you’re looking at an even better starting group than the World Series champs ran out a season ago. Strictly based on money and contractual obligations, this core’s window may not exceed next season to win another World Series, so expect the Astros to not only win the AL West but be the frontrunners to win the American League again this year. This team, if necessary, will be willing to make another deadline move to get them over the hump, just like last year, when the club acquired Verlander. The offense is prolific and the pitching staff is in the area of great to elite.
Los Angeles Angels
American League Wild Cards
Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays
The Angels, Rangers, Mariners and Blue Jays could all be interesting Wild Card contenders for the second spot behind the loser of the AL East.
Shohei Ohtani is all the rage in LA, where he’ll likely start 20-25 games on the mound and an equal amount as the team’s DH. Look past Ohtani, however, and you’ll find a team that could surprise many in 2018. The offense is talented, with Zack Cozart and Ian Kinsler joining Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Andrelton Simmons. The rotation could be the team’s Achilles heal this year, as we still don’t know what the team will actually get out of Ohtani. Richards, Heaney and Shoemaker have proven to be total boom-or-bust arms. Should the core all boom, this team could make the playoffs.
The Rangers, on paper, aren’t as talented as the Angels or Blue Jays, but could have equally successful teams. Matt Moore and Doug Fister join the starting rotation, giving the Rangers depth behind Cole Hamels for the first time in years on the mound. The young core, paired with the ageless Adrian Beltre, could be a matchup nightmare for opposing staffs, with four righties and four lefties slated to be among the eight positional starters.
The Mariners seem to be a hot pick for this second Wild Card spot with a very talented, yet subdued roster. Many on the east coast don’t get to watch the Mariners enough with 10:00 EST first pitches on a near nightly basis. But this team will be quite talented in 2018. Seattle acquired Dee Gordon from the Marlins this offseason, and will likely put him in center field, with Robinson Cano manning second base. The speedster will likely lead off this season, providing the Mariners with a perennial near-.300 hitter, 50 stolen base lead off man. The rotation isn’t great, but it’s certainly not poor either. King Felix, along with the emerging James Paxton, will keep the Mariners in many games. The team added Mike Leake late last season, and will look for 30-plus starts from him in 2018.
But it’s the Blue Jays that likely have the most complete team of the four, and therefore, I expect them to represent the AL East as the second Wild Card team come October. Toronto was busy this offseason, adding Randal Grichuk and Curtis Granderson to the outfield and Jamie Garcia to the starting rotation, as part of a low key winter that could be the difference for the Blue Jays in 2018. The rotation features five arms that can be in that good to great category, which will stabilize the Blue Jays through the 38 games against the Red Sox and Yankees.
Mandatory Credit: Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports