NHL Playoff Preview

Spring’s most enjoyable playoffs begin Wednesday

By: Jesse

LAS VEGAS, NV – JUNE 07: Washington Capitals Left Wing Alex Ovechkin (8) hoists the cup after defeating the Las Vegas Golden Knights 4-3 to win the Stanley Cup during game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Washington Capitals and the Las Vegas Golden Knights on June 07, 2018 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, NV. (Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Okay hockey fan!

I’m hyper-aware of my audience. But to those of you who care, it’s time for our first annual Stanley Cup Playoffs preview.

Full disclosure, this won’t be as in-depth as my previous baseball and college basketball pieces. I haven’t watched as much hockey this season as I would have liked to, and I haven’t followed it for as long as I’ve followed other sports. But, I love hockey playoff time, and it’s always entertaining, even if your favorite team didn’t make it…for the second straight year (yeah, I know some have it worse).

Last year, the Washington Capitals finally broke through and won their first Stanley Cup. Arguably the best player in the league, Alex Ovechkin, finally climbed the highest mountain. It was a feel good story that bested another feel good story from last year – the Vegas Golden Knights in their inaugural season.

As many sports fans know, expansion teams generally struggle in at least their first season, if not for several years. Look no further than the Houston Texans in the NFL, who didn’t make the playoffs until they were 10 seasons in. Most expansion teams follow a similar trajectory – Vegas had no interest in that.

The Golden Knights were one of the best stories of the 2017-18 NHL season. The season started right around the time of the mass shooting in Las Vegas, and the city rallied around the Golden Knights. The number 58 was retired at the beginning of the year in honor and memory of the casualties in that domestic terrorist attack, and Vegas played with that chip on its shoulder all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.

So who will raise the Cup this year? The odds-on favorite is Tampa Bay, who finished the season with 128 points and won the Presidents’ Trophy. The Lightning are absolutely stacked, but they haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 2004, and the window might be closing on them soon. They did make the Final in 2015, but lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games.

The Lightning have probable Hart Memorial Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov leading their offensive attack. Kucherov finished with a massive 128 points (41 goals, 87 assists) this season, and Steven Stamkos (98 points) and Brayden Point (92) both had outstanding seasons as well. Throw in goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy and a couple of the best defensemen in the league in Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh, and the Lightning are a force to be reckoned with.

It’s hard to bet against the Lightning in the Eastern Conference, but they don’t exactly have an easy matchup in the first round. The Columbus Blue Jackets’ window is right now, and they know it. Artemi Panarin led them with 87 points (28 goals and 59 assists), while Cam Atkinson tallied 41 goals and 28 points (nice). Sergei Bobrovsky is solid in net, but his postseason struggles are well-documented. Columbus is a dangerous team to play in a series, but I expect Tampa to get past them.

From there, the only two teams that I think really have a shot at taking out the Lightning are the Boston Bruins and the Washington Capitals. Boston has an interesting first round matchup with the Toronto Maple Leafs, who were my preseason pick to win it all, but Toronto has been trending in the wrong direction.

The Bruins were led by Brad Marchand, who finished with 100 points. The 22-year-old stud David Pastrnak finished with 81 points and led the Bruins with 38 goals. Patrice Bergeron had 79 points on the year as well, and Tuukka Rask has been one of the best goaltenders over the past six seasons, winning the Vezina Trophy (best goalie) in 2013-14.

The Capitals return a ton of their Stanley Cup winning roster from last year. Ovechkin led the league with 51 goals, and also led the Caps with 89 points. Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and John Carlson all scored at least 70 points, and T.J. Oshie is still on the roster as well. Goaltender Braden Holtby hasn’t been as crisp as he was last season (especially in the playoffs), but the experience is there.

All in all, I expect the Lightning, Bruins, Capitals (vs. Carolina), and Penguins to win their first round matchups. I don’t think the New York Islanders have enough talent to keep up with Pittsburgh in their series. And while it’s hard to bet against Tampa, I like…no, never mind. I’m picking the Tampa Bay Lightning to come out of the East.

Out West, the hottest team all year has been the Calgary Flames (no pun intended). They finished with 107 points, which was best in the Western Conference, and they have one of the most complete teams in hockey. They had five players score at least 74 points, led by Johnny Gaudreau (36 goals, 63 assists). Both goaltenders, David Rittich and Mike Smith, were solid this year, and Mark Giordano could (and maybe should) win the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman.

Their first round opponent is the Colorado Avalanche. Nathan MacKinnon is one of the best young players in the league, and like Gaudreau, he also finished with 99 points (41 g, 58 a). Even younger than MacKinnon is Mikko Rantanen, who scored 87 points, and the captain (though older), Gabriel Landeskog, posted 34 goals and 41 assists. It isn’t going to be enough to beat Calgary, though (sorry, Trefty).

My preseason pick in the West was the San Jose Sharks, and like my preseason pick in the East, they too have been trending in the wrong direction as of late. They go up against Vegas in the first round, which should be a terrific series. I think home ice and the late-season acquisition of Gustav Nyquist, along with Brent Burns, Tomas Hertl, and Logan Couture will be too much for Vegas this year, and the Sharks will send the Golden Knights home early. I’m not confident in this pick, but I’m sticking by the Sharks.

I like the Nashville Predators to beat the Dallas Stars in six games in their first round matchup, and while the Winnipeg Jets haven’t been impressive lately, I like them to beat the red-hot St. Louis Blues. I just have a feeling about the Jets and that they’ll right the ship.

Out of the Flames, Sharks, Predators, and Jets, any of those four teams could make a run to the Cup Final. Conventional wisdom and the eye test says go with Calgary, but I think I’m going to ditch my preseason pick again (sorry Sharks) and go with the Nashville Predators to make the Stanley Cup Final out of the West.

That leaves us with a Tampa Bay/Nashville Final, and as much as I love those yellow Preds jerseys and the way the Nashville fans bring it come playoff time, I just don’t think any team can outlast the Lightning in a seven game series. Kucherov could carry the Lightning to the Cup by himself, but he doesn’t have to, because Tampa is stacked. Look for the Tampa Bay Lightning to raise the Stanley Cup for the first time in 15 years.

WASHINGTON, DC – MAY 15: Nikita Kucherov #86 of the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrates after scoring a goal on Braden Holtby #70 of the Washington Capitals during the second period in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Capital One Arena on May 15, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

NL East Preview

Who comes out on top in one of the best divisions in baseball?

By: Jesse

This is our final division preview piece for the 2019 season, and while I think the NL Central is the strongest division from top to bottom, there’s a solid chance that the NL East race will be more entertaining to watch throughout the year.

Four of these teams believe they could win the division and make the playoffs, but the reality is, only three of them actually can play postseason baseball. And that’s the best case scenario. They could send the division winner only and miss out on the other two wild card spots.

If you’re a fan of the Mets, Nationals, Phillies, or Braves, you obviously have to pull for your team to win the division and not leave anything else up to chance. The Rockies will be strong contenders for a wild card spot out West, and the Cubs and Brewers (according to Midwest Sports Pulse’s predictions) should compete out of the Central. It all boils down, like every year, to how many wins you can scrounge up.

Let’s dive right in.

Washington Nationals

Projected record: 90-72

Anthony Rendon prepares for a game in 2017 | Photo by: Keith Allison

No Bryce? No problem!

The more casual baseball fan may be wondering why the Phillies aren’t the overwhelming favorite to win the division after acquiring Bryce Harper for a mere $330 million over 13 years.

And perhaps more than that, why would the team that Bryce Harper left be the favorite?

Glad you asked.

The Washington Nationals are one of the most interesting teams in baseball. Yes, they just lost their superstar outfielder in free agency to a division rival.

But what are they really losing? Harper may be an all-time great by the time he’s finished, but he didn’t resemble that in 2018. We’ll get into those details in the Phillies section.

The Nationals have the best top 3 in baseball when it comes to the starting pitching. Max Scherzer is maybe the most dominant pitcher in baseball right now. He won the Cy Young Award in both 2016 and 2017 (to go along with his 2013 Cy Young with Detroit) and finished second in the voting last season. In each of the last six seasons, he’s thrown at least 200 innings, struck out no fewer than 240 batters, and his average ERA is right around 2.80.

But the Nationals still have Stephen Strasburg, the former number one overall pick in 2009, and they signed Patrick Corbin in free agency this offseason from the Arizona Diamondbacks. Oh, and Corbin signed a six-year deal for $140 million, so yeah, the Nats believe he can be a key contributor. Oh, and they have one of the best closers in baseball in Sean Doolittle, who was an All-Star last year.

While Harper provided good power numbers, Washington won’t miss that as much as you might think. Anthony Rendon has hit 24 and 25 home runs over the last two seasons and driven in close to 100 runs. He’s also batted above .300 during that stretch as well. He’s quietly one of baseball’s most solid players, and he’s likely due for a lot of money in an upcoming contract extension. Not quite Harper or Trout money, but Rendon should get a large pay day.

Former superprospect Juan Soto was one of baseball’s best young players in 2018. He hit .292 with the club in 116 games, hitting 22 home runs and racking up 70 RBI. He’s also an outstanding outfielder and finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting, behind another division rival. Over the course of a full season, if healthy, Soto should hit at least 30 home runs and come close to 100 RBI.

The Nationals also have Brian Dozier on a one-year deal. He’s a few years removed from his 42 home run season with Minnesota, but he still managed half of that total in 2018, and his presence will help make up some of those lost Harper numbers.

Trea Turner has been terrific at shortstop for Washington since 2015. His offensive numbers have declined in the last two seasons since he hit .342 in 2016, but he stole 43 bases last year and creates offense however he can. Expect that from likely every day center fielder Victor Robles as well. He seems to be the most big league ready prospect for the Nationals in 2019, as he has a little bit of experience at the Major League level over the last two years, and the Nats will give him the nod in center field on Opening Day.

Ryan Zimmerman is still there, despite being 97 years old (at least that’s how long it seems he’s been there). Jokes aside, Zimmerman has been consistent, and while he was limited to just 85 games in 2018, he had a career high 36 home runs in 2017. Zimmerman also seems to have that “clutch gene” and Washington has counted on him in big spots over the years. He and Matt Adams should trade off at first base from time to time in 2019.

It’s of course difficult to replace a player like Bryce Harper, but the Nationals have enough talent to do just that in 2019, and they’d like for the story to be about the current Nationals, not former ones. Look for them to come out swinging and prove to the world that they’ll be just fine without him.

Atlanta Braves

Projected record: 88-74

NL Rookie of the Year Ronald Acuna Jr. (13) digs in at the plate last September against the Cardinals | Photo by: Thomson M

The next two teams could finish in any order, but I think the Braves are more talented, so I’m sticking them in the #2 spot.

Atlanta is the defending division champion, winning 90 games before bowing out of the playoffs to the eventual National League Pennant winning Los Angeles Dodgers. They have one of the most exciting young players in baseball who has already established himself in Ronald Acuna Jr.

Acuna was the Rookie of the Year for the National League in 2018. He hit .293 with 26 home runs and 64 RBI in just 111 games. If he’s healthy and plays in every game this year, that’s an additional 51 contests for him to rack up more impressive statistics. Acuna could be a legitimate contender for the National League MVP Award this season.

The Braves also have Freddie Freeman, the Gold Glove winner at first base last season. Freeman had 191 hits and played in all 162 games, finishing 4th in the MVP voting. His average was .309 and he can be counted on for around 25 home runs each season. He’s become one of the most consistent all-around players in baseball.

Nick Markakis is patrolling the outfield in Atlanta again this year. The former Oriole also played in all 162 games last season. He hit just a shade under .300 and was an All-Star for the first time in his 13 year career. He’s also a three-time Gold Glove winner, adding to his collection in 2018.

Ozzie Albies is another exciting young player for the Braves that you may want to keep an eye on. Albies hit 24 home runs last season and gathered 167 hits en route to his first (of many) All-Star selection(s). Along with Albies, three-time Gold Glove winner Ender Inciarte should pace both the offense and defense. It’ll be interesting to see if the Braves can get the production they hoped for from Dansby Swanson, the former #1 overall pick.

Let’s also not forget that the Braves signed former AL MVP Josh Donaldson to a one-year deal worth $23 million. Donaldson’s numbers have declined the last two years as he dealt with multiple recurring injuries, but he should provide a boost on offense for a team with plenty of it already.

The biggest question in Atlanta will be the pitching staff. Mike Foltynewicz will likely be the ace of the staff, but he’s out until late April. Kevin Gausman is also starting the season on the injured list. Julio Teheran will get the nod on Opening Day for Atlanta. Teheran went 9-9 with a 3.94 ERA last season. The rest of the rotation is comprised of young, mostly untested arms in the forms of Sean Newcomb, Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson, and Max Fried. While the returns of Foltynewicz and Gausman will alleviate some of the inexperience, the pitching staff as a whole is what I think will keep the Braves from winning the division in 2019.

New York Mets

Projected record: 86-76

Can the reigning National League Cy Young winner power the Mets to a division crown? Methinks not | Photo by: Arturo Pardavila III

In the complete opposite of Atlanta above, a massive portion of the Mets’ hopes for this season lie on their pitching staff, including the 2018 NL Cy Young winner, Jacob DeGrom.

DeGrom just signed a five-year, $137 million contract extension this week, and I think it’s safe to say that he’s earned it. Since 2014, DeGrom has 1000 strikeouts and a 2.67 ERA, which is among the best in baseball since that time. Last season, in a year where the Mets finished 77-85, DeGrom went 10-9 with 269 strikeouts and an astonishing 1.70 ERA. He was magnificent for a bad team, and with any additional run support, he could make a strong case for winning back-to-back Cy Young Awards.

Besides DeGrom, the Mets also still have Noah Syndergaard, the hard-throwing right hander. Despite missing some time in the past two seasons, Syndergaard has a tendency to overpower hitters, routinely hitting triple digits with his fastball.

Zack Wheeler and Steven Matz round out the top four in the Mets rotation. Wheeler went 12-7 last season in 29 starts, while Matz struggled a bit more, finishing with a 5-11 record and a sub-4.00 ERA.

The offense has some key cogs that have been around for a while. Robinson Cano, who served an 80-game suspension for the use of performance enhancing drugs last season, was acquired from Seattle in an offseason trade that saw the Mets send Jay Bruce to the Mariners, among other players and prospects. The 36-year-old second baseman is an eight time All-Star and a career .304 hitter. His bat should be a welcome addition on the National League side of New York.

Todd Frazier and Yoenis Cespedes are two other names that have been around for a while. Frazier is currently dealing with an oblique injury and doesn’t have a timetable for a return just yet. His numbers have steadily declined since 2016, when he hit 40 home runs with the White Sox, but the Mets are hopeful he can bump up his average and power numbers from last season. Cespedes, who is 33 years old, has one of the best arms in baseball, but has had each of his last two seasons end prematurely from injuries. Double heel surgery last year sidelined Cespedes starting in April, and like Frazier, there’s no timetable for his return. He’s been quoted as saying he thinks he’ll play in 2019, but isn’t sure whether it will come in July, August, or September. A career .274 hitter, Cespedes has two years left on his deal with the Mets.

Wilson Ramos will handle the catching duties while Travis d’Arnaud recovers and rehabs from Tommy John surgery he underwent last April. Today, d’Arnaud was placed on the 10-day Injury List, so his return will likely be much sooner than either Cespedes or Frazier.

The offense is really going to revolve around two young building blocks in the outfield: Michael Conforto and Brandon Nimmo. Conforto was an All-Star in 2017 before dislocating his left shoulder on a swing in August. He hit .243 with 28 home runs and 82 RBI last season.

Nimmo spent all of 2018 with the Mets and parts of both the 2016 and 2017 seasons as well. He hit .263 last season in 140 games, adding 17 home runs. In each of his three seasons (partial or full) with New York, Nimmo has seen his on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS (On-base Plus Slugging) percentage increase each year. He finished 2018 with an .886 OPS, which was good for 17th best in all of baseball.

If the Mets stay healthy throughout the year, as they’ve struggled to do recently, they’ll absolutely compete for the NL East crown. I expect them to be in the race until the very end, but both the Nationals and Braves outrank them in talent, particularly on offense, and that’s why I see them finishing in a healthy third place.

Philadelphia Phillies

Projected record: 83-79

New Phillie Bryce Harper readies himself for a pitch during spring training | CSN Philly

I know, I know.

It seems like the Phillies should be the NL East favorites, right? You have every right to think that.

They won the Bryce Harper sweepstakes this offseason, signing the phenom to a then-record 13-year, $330 million deal (which was shortly broken by Mike Trout’s $430 million). They traded for Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto in February. They traded for Jean Segura in December, bringing over the shortstop from Seattle. They signed Andrew McCutchen to a three-year deal worth $50 million.

It’s hard to argue that any team had a more productive offseason than the Phillies. The offense is loaded from top to bottom, and once you factor in young studs Odubel Herrera, Maikel Franco, and Rhys Hoskins, that’s a scary lineup to face.

But this team is going to have issues on the mound, and that’s the main reason I think they’ll miss the playoffs in 2019.

Aaron Nola is one of the best pitchers in baseball, hands down. The 25-year-old went 17-6 last year with a 2.37 ERA, finishing third in the Cy Young voting. He also struck out 224 batters. He’s considered an early top contender for the Cy Young this season as well.

But beyond that? There are some question marks.

The #2 guy in Philadelphia is Jake Arrieta. I won’t hide anything here; I love Jake. He was a massive piece of the Cubs rebuild and World Series run. But since his 2015 Cy Young winning season, his numbers have been on a steady decline. The hard-throwing righty is also 33 years old this season and returning from knee surgery to repair his meniscus. He’s expected to pitch this week and be ready, but it remains to be seen how effective he can be. He had his highest ERA (3.96, still pretty good) and lowest strikeout total (138) since the 2013 season.

The rest of the rotation isn’t great. Nick Pivetta lost 14 games last year and his ERA was 4.77. Zach Eflin was a little bit better, going 11-8 with a 4.36 ERA in 2018. Vince Velasquez may factor in as the fifth starter, but he finished the 2018 campaign with a 9-12 mark and the highest ERA of the three (4.85). The Phillies have to get production out of their 3-5 pitchers if they want to have any real shot at winning the division, and the bullpen needs to be solid as well. The problem with the latter is that the bullpen has some talented young arms without a lot of experience, and it generally takes time to adjust to the big league level.

The offense will be good enough to keep them around and win a few games on their own. Obviously Harper brings a ton of talent with him, despite his average dipping to .249 in 2018 and striking out 169 times, a career high. He still managed to hit 34 home runs, drive in exactly 100 runs, and he walked 130 times. But he hasn’t quite been the same since his 2015 MVP season.

Realmuto was an All-Star and won the Silver Slugger for National League catchers in 2018. Segura hit .304 on his way to 178 hits last year. McCutchen struggled a bit between the Giants and Yankees, his average just .255. His 20 home runs were the lowest since 2013, but to be fair, his career high is 31, set in 2012.

As for the other three I mentioned above, Herrera started the 2018 season hot but cooled off to finish with a .255 batting average, the same as McCutchen. He did smack 22 home runs, and his power numbers have generally increased in his four seasons with the team. Franco had a solid year, batting .270 and slugging 22 home runs. He has 71 dingers in the last three years, so something around that 22-24 range is about what’s expected. Rhys Hoskins was the most impressive in 2018, as he hit 34 home runs in 153 games. The Phils would like to see his average go up from .246, but a season with 30-plus home runs and 100 RBI isn’t out of the question for him.

Obviously the Phillies have the talent to fight for a division championship, but the offense will have to carry them to it. While it is certainly capable of doing so, I see the pitching being too much of an issue. If that’s the case, they’ll certainly wonder whether they could have spent some of that offseason money on another arm. As of publishing, Dallas Keuchel is still available, and the Phillies have been linked to him as of late, but he still remains unsigned. If Keuchel does sign with Philadelphia, expect them to shoot to the top of the favorites to win the division in Vegas.

Miami Marlins

Projected record: 53-109

Can a spiffy new logo keep the Marlins from losing 100 games? No.

Ay yi yi.

What can you really say about Miami? (Insert dumpster fire GIF).

Sort of like the Orioles and the Royals that we talked about in past previews, this team is just bad. So bad, in fact, that the picture at the top of the article with every team’s logo wasn’t even updated, and nobody probably would’ve noticed.

Miami is firmly in the middle of a rebuild, but it doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon. The top prospect is right-handed pitcher Sixto Sanchez, who was acquired from Philadelphia in the J.T. Realmuto trade. The only other Top 100 guy in the organization is Cuban outfielder Victor Victor Mesa (not a typo). Those two alone aren’t going to make this team go, whenever they make the big leagues.

Since Derek Jeter became a non-controlling owner in Miami in September 2017, Realmuto, Dee Gordon, Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich, and Giancarlo Stanton have been traded or have signed elsewhere. If the Marlins still had all of those guys on the team, they’d probably be the favorites to win the National League East, if not the entire National League. To be fair, it isn’t all Jeter’s fault, and it probably isn’t really his fault at all, but I don’t hear a lot of people questioning Bruce Sherman instead, and I’m sure Sherman is grateful to have Jeter take the heat.

So, who is still on the roster? Let’s start with some of the names you might recognize on offense. Starlin Castro, the former Cub and Yankee, will be the starting second baseman. Castro’s a career .281 hitter and if nothing else, he’ll give you consistency at the plate.

Neil Walker will be the starting first baseman on Opening Day. Most of Walker’s career was spent in Pittsburgh, but he spent 2018 with the Yankees and struggled, batting just .219.

Martin Prado is another name you might recognize. He’s been in Miami since 2015, but his last two seasons have each been hampered by injuries. Prado does have six .300+ seasons in his career, so if he can stay healthy and find a place to play the field, he could contribute.

Curtis Granderson will be the Opening Day left fielder in Miami. Granderson, who just turned 38, is pretty far removed from the days when he could have been considered a superstar. He hit just .242 in Toronto and Milwaukee last year, which admittedly was a 30 point improvement from 2017.

And that’s probably it as far as names some of you have heard of. Now, the Marlins do have an excellent third baseman in Brian Anderson. He finished fourth in NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2018, and he’s expected to be a key piece of the rebuild. Lewis Brinson, the center fielder, could be another key component in years to come. He was part of the Christian Yelich trade but has been disappointing. He hit just .199 in 109 games last season.

The pitching staff isn’t great, but it has some young talent that has potential to develop into one of the league’s better rotations. Jose Urena will be the ace once again. Urena went 9-12 last season but kept his ERA under 4.00 while striking out 130. The rest of the rotation is relatively inexperienced. The other four likely starters – Trevor Richards, Sandy Alcantara, Caleb Smith, and Pablo Lopez – have just 59 starts between them. Richards started 25 of those games last season, going 4-9 with a 4.42 ERA.

The bullpen is the same story, mostly inexperienced with a few vets sprinkled in. Sergio Romo signed a one-year deal with the club this offseason. The former three-time World Series champion with the Giants is the most experienced pitcher in the bullpen. Wei-Yin Chen started 26 games last season for the Marlins but is likely to begin the year in relief. The Marlins also seem ready to roll with Drew Steckenrider as the closer, despite him only having six saves over two seasons.

The Marlins are far from competing for anything meaningful beyond the first overall pick. The pitching staff could be a surprise this year, but playing nearly half of their games against the rest of this division and the offenses that come with it will make for a long year in Miami.

See? Still the same old Miami logo in this picture, and you probably missed it the first time. I almost did too, don’t feel bad.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

By: Jesse

Welcome to Midwest Sports Pulse’s first annual March Madness preview. Anyone who knows me knows that the NCAA Tournament is my favorite sporting event, and the first four days of the tournament are my favorite four days of the year. I am so excited that it’s finally here, and it doesn’t even matter that Indiana didn’t make it.

Okay, that stings a little.

This piece will have two parts: one being the teams that actually have a chance to win the tournament, and one being my general predictions for each region.

Let’s get started!

Part one: the teams that could win

Here, in an order that I will explain to you shortly, are the 20 teams that actually could win the NCAA tournament: Texas Tech, Michigan, Wisconsin, Kansas State, Virginia, Duke, VCU, Michigan State, Florida State, North Carolina, Clemson, Kentucky, Houston, Florida, Kansas, Gonzaga, Louisville, Oregon, Northwestern, and Washington.

Now, you may have noticed that a couple of those teams aren’t in the field, so we can eliminate Clemson and Northwestern.

So what else do the other 18 have in common?

Answer: they all finished in the Top 20 of Ken Pomeroy’s (KenPom) Adjusted Defensive Efficiency.

First, what does that mean? The Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (ADE) is the number of points allowed per 100 possessions, adjusted for opponent. Essentially, when Texas Tech is on defense 100 times, they’ve only given up 86 points this season, which is tops in college basketball.

Here’s why that matters. Since 2002, which is the first year that KenPom’s analysis is listed on his website, every single national champion has finished the season in KenPom’s Defensive Efficiency Top 20.

There’s one exception: these statistics have recently switched to “Adjusted Defensive Efficiency” from just “Defensive Efficiency.” When it was the latter, the 2009 North Carolina championship team finished 21st in Defensive Efficiency. But with the ADE, they were 18th.

But yes: every single champion since 2002 has finished in the top 20 of KenPom’s Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. From Maryland to Villanova, every single one.

I learned that fact a few years ago, and since then, I have not chosen a champion in my bracket that has finished outside that top 20 (which doesn’t mean I’ve gotten it right every year…quite the contrary).

I think it’s safe to say a few more of those teams (VCU, Florida, Kansas, Louisville, Oregon, and Washington) can be eliminated as well. With the exception of Kansas, all of those teams are lower in the seeding, and the Jayhawks just haven’t been as good this season as they were advertised to be, despite starting the season at #1.

So who’s left? Texas Tech, Michigan, Wisconsin, Kansas State, Virginia, Duke, Michigan State, Florida State, North Carolina, Kentucky, Houston, and Gonzaga.

You might look at those teams and say to yourself, “Yeah, well no kidding. Of course one of them is going to win.” Fair point. Those are some heavy hitters. But it should speak volumes as to how important defense has always been in college basketball, and that the teams that play the best defense are rewarded. Those 12 teams should be your only options when choosing a champion. And you could probably truthfully whittle that list down to 8 or 9 if you’re really feeling generous. For example, Wisconsin, Kansas State, and Houston are very good basketball teams, but I don’t think they have enough all-around firepower to get them to the Final Four, let alone win the championship.

Noticeable omissions from the KenPom Adjusted Defensive Efficiency Top 20: Maryland (22nd), Virginia Tech (25th), Purdue (32nd), Tennessee (34th), Auburn (45th), LSU (62nd), Villanova (73rd).

The lowest team in the tournament field is Fairleigh-Dickinson, who comes in at a pretty terrible 294th (out of 353 Division I teams). They’re in the play-in game Tuesday night against Prairie View for the right to get trounced by Gonzaga on Thursday. (Update: before I hit publish, Fairleigh-Dickinson came back and defeated Prairie View, so they will be facing Gonzaga.)

Oh, and just because I can? Indiana’s Adjusted Defensive Efficiency was 30th best in the nation this year, two spots ahead of Purdue. Go Hoosiers.

Part Two: Region by region breakdown

East Region

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – MARCH 16: Head coach Mike Krzyzewski of the Duke Blue Devils cuts down the net after defeating the Florida State Seminoles 73-63 in the championship game of the 2019 Men’s ACC Basketball Tournament at Spectrum Center on March 16, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Let’s start in the East with the #1 overall seed: the Duke Blue Devils.

Duke is a pretty overwhelming favorite, at least as far as the number of people picking them to win the tournament. FiveThirtyEight puts their chances at 19%, which is tops among the field, and your bracket should probably revolve around how far you’re willing to take Duke.

If you’re in a pool where you can win money, you have two options with the Blue Devils. One, since they are the favorite, you could put your money on them and maybe have to split any prize winnings with 25-50% of your pool that also picked Duke. Two, you could go against the grain and hope it pays off.

I really think Duke makes the Final Four at the very least. This is one of the most talented college basketball teams to ever take the court together, and if you’ve watched any college basketball this year, you know how freakishly athletic Zion Williamson is. He’ll probably be the #1 pick in the NBA Draft in June, but he wasn’t even the top recruit coming in to Duke last summer: that was RJ Barrett, the likely #2 overall selection in the NBA Draft.

The top part of this region isn’t that strong. The 8/9 matchup between VCU and UCF could be fun to watch, and either of those teams could give Duke some struggles, but I also doubt either of them would be able to keep it up for 40 minutes.

I would expect Duke to play and beat Virginia Tech, the 4 seed, in the Sweet 16. A trendy upset pick is Liberty (12) over Mississippi State (5), but that’s not the 12/5 upset I would be most likely to take.

The lower half of this bracket should belong to Michigan State. I think they’re the best 2 seed in the tournament, and I also think it could have been the fourth #1 seed over Gonzaga, but that’s irrelevant at this point.

Stay far away from LSU. If you haven’t been following college basketball, their head coach, Will Wade, was caught on a wiretap by the FBI discussing payments to recruits.

Not great.

LSU certainly has enough talent to win a game or two, but don’t be shocked if Yale (14) upsets them in the first round. They can really shoot the basketball, and they have a legitimate NBA Draft prospect in Miye Oni. I’m taking Yale over LSU solely because of the Will Wade dilemma. It just seems like there are too many distractions in that Tigers locker room right now.

The 7/10 matchup between Louisville and Minnesota is fun if you’re a college basketball fan. Minnesota’s head coach is Richard Pitino, son of disgraced (also by the FBI) former Louisville head coach Rick Pitino. It could be an interesting matchup, but neither of them is going to win in the second round against the Spartans.

My Sweet 16 matchup in this part of the bracket is all Big Ten: Maryland vs. Michigan State. There are two ways this could go: Maryland is good enough to beat Michigan State (though the Spartans won the only regular season meeting 69-55), but they’re also inconsistent enough that they could lose to Belmont in the first round (if Belmont beats Temple). (That game is still being played as of publishing.)

The bottom line in the East is that this region should pretty much be chalk. Duke and Michigan State is the Elite 8 matchup you should expect to see. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tom Izzo leads the Spartans to an upset and another Final Four, but my official pick for the East has to be Duke.

West Region

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS – MARCH 16: Head coach John Beilein of the Michigan Wolverines calls out instructions in the first half against the Minnesota Golden Gophers during the semifinals of the Big Ten Basketball Tournament at United Center on March 16, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Of the four regions, the West is the most up in the air, in my opinion. Any of the 1-7 seeds has a legitimate shot to make the Final Four out of this region.

Let’s start at the top with Gonzaga. The Bulldogs, or Zags, have been nothing short of outstanding this year. They finished 16th in that Adjusted Defensive Efficiency that we discussed above, but maybe more importantly, they finished first in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency. The Zags scored 125.1 points per 100 possessions, which was tops in Division I by a point and a half.

They can flat out score the basketball. FiveThirtyEight gives them a 15% chance of winning the tournament, which is third best. Rui Hachimura averaged 20.1 points per game this year and shot nearly 61% from the field. Brandon Clarke 16.5 points per game and 8.4 rebounds per game. Zach Norvell averaged 15.3 points per game and shot over 37% from three point range. Those three alone are great, but Josh Perkins also averaged double figures (11 ppg) and gives an additional offensive threat.

But the committee did Gonzaga no favors being the fourth 1 seed. They have a potential tough matchup in the second round with Syracuse and the famed 2-3 zone that Jim Boeheim employs. For some reason, it seems like teams forget how to attack and beat the 2-3 zone in March, and if Gonzaga isn’t making its shots, they could be upset early.

The 12/5 matchup here is definitely intriguing and another trendy upset pick. Marquette (5) takes on Murray State (12) in a game with two excellent NBA Draft prospects. I wrote about Marquette and Markus Howard last month, and you can find that piece here. Since then, the Golden Eagles have struggled to say the least. Ja Morant of Murray State is currently ranked third on most NBA Mock Draft Boards, and he could carry the Racers to victory here. Marquette could also regain its earlier form and Howard could lead them to a Sweet 16 berth or beyond. It’s really up to you: for what it’s worth, I picked Marquette to win, but I have them losing in the second round to Florida State.

The Seminoles, to me, are simultaneously an underrated and appropriately-seeded team. I think the best way to put that is that they’re dangerous and a sleeper pick. Leonard Hamilton is a terrific coach (I can’t believe he’s 70 years old) and he’s built a very talented roster that gave Duke just about all it could handle twice this year. I don’t foresee them having any trouble with Vermont.

The top Sweet 16 matchup for me is Gonzaga and Florida State, which would be a rematch from last year’s Sweet 16. Florida State, then a 9 seed, beat Gonzaga, a 4 seed, by a score of 75-60. I think they’ll beat the Zags again and advance to the Elite 8 for the second straight season.

In the bottom half of the bracket, there are four teams with a real chance at getting to the Final Four. Buffalo is an absolute sleeper: the Bulls ruined my bracket on day one last year when they demolished Arizona by 21 points as a 13 seed. They’ll get to the second round and face Texas Tech. The Red Raiders had the top ADE this season, and the Bulls scored almost 85 points a game. It could go either way, but I have Texas Tech advancing to the Sweet 16, also for the second straight season.

Nevada made a pretty neat Sweet 16 run last season, and they have the tools to do it again. The Wolfpack finished the season 29-4 and returned the Martin twins (Caleb and Cody) and Jordan Caroline. Caleb Martin averaged nearly 20 points per game and Caroline averaged over 17.

But they won’t be back in the Sweet 16 this year. Michigan, the 2 seed, is too good. John Beilein (pictured above) will lead the Wolverines over the Wolfpack and Texas Tech.

The Elite 8 matchup here for me is Florida State and Michigan, which is also a rematch from last season. I don’t see the result being any different either, and I have Michigan advancing to the Final Four again this year. Beilein has quietly built one of the most impressive college programs in the country, and his successes should continue.

South Region

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – MARCH 14: De’Andre Hunter #12 of the Virginia Cavaliers reacts after a play against the North Carolina State Wolfpack during their game in the quarterfinal round of the 2019 Men’s ACC Basketball Tournament at Spectrum Center on March 14, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

I know what you’re thinking, and there is absolutely NO WAY that Virginia loses to a 16 seed again. Not a chance. I would stake my entire reputation on it.

This region has some good teams, but it’s the Cavaliers and Tony Bennett’s to lose. They have a 17% chance to win it all, according to FiveThirtyEight. Virginia had the 5th best defense according to KenPom’s ADE, but this year, they also had the 2nd best offense (just behind Gonzaga). They had the 30th best offense last season, and 50th in 2017. This Virginia team is different in that they score the ball much better than the last few Tony Bennett teams, but they also play that same style of suffocating defense that Bennett has become known for.

They also have De’Andre Hunter this season, who missed last year’s tournament with a wrist injury. Between Hunter, Indianapolis native Kyle Guy, and Ty Jerome, the Cavaliers have a balanced offensive attack that will continue to be hard for other teams to contain.

Virginia should cruise through the top of the bracket to the Elite 8. I think Oklahoma (9) beats Ole Miss (8), but the Sooners can’t keep up with the Cavaliers.

This region has the 12/5 upset that I’m most keen on. The Oregon Ducks played their way into the NCAA Tournament by winning the Pac 12 Conference Tournament, and they are on a heater right now. They play Wisconsin, another Top 20 ADE team, and if the Ducks can shut down Ethan Happ in the post, it’ll be an early exit for the Badgers. Also: whatever the over/under is for this game, bet the under. This game should be first team to 50 points wins.

I also like UC Irvine to beat Kansas State in a 13/4 upset. The Anteaters are another team that’s hot coming into the tournament, and they won 30 games this season. Kansas State has a couple of good players (including Dean Wade), but there’s just something about this matchup that I don’t like. I’m taking the Anteaters over the Wildcats.

That gives Virginia either the 12 seed, Oregon, or the 13 seed, UC Irvine, in the Sweet 16. Like I said, Cavs cruise.

I think Villanova and Purdue both win their matchups in the first round to set up an interesting game in the second. Villanova has struggled at times this season, and overall, I think the 6 seed is appropriate for them. But the Wildcats are the defending champions, and they return a few players from last year’s team that bring a ton of talent and experience.

The question for Purdue will be how far Carsen Edwards can carry them. I think they’ll get past Villanova, but if Edwards has another 4-24 shooting performance like he did against Indiana, Purdue will be in heaps of trouble. They should make the Sweet 16, but their performance will be directly tied to Edwards.

I think Cincinnati is underseeded at 7. The American Athletic Conference Tournament Champions are a physical squad, and when they play Tennessee, another physical team, in the second round, don’t miss that game. It’ll be a real slobberknocker (thanks, J.R.) between the Bearcats and the Volunteers, but Tennessee should come out on top.

The Sweet 16 game between Purdue and Tennessee will be another fun one to watch. Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield are terrific players for the Vols, and they’ve led the team all season long. As much as I don’t want to pick the Boilers, I think Carsen Edwards will have a game that makes him a legend at Purdue and carry the Boilers into the Elite 8. I’m talking 40 points and maybe even a game-winning or game-clinching shot.

But that’s where the run ends. If it doesn’t happen before the Elite 8, Virginia’s defense will crush Edwards, and Purdue doesn’t have enough firepower on offense to overcome the Cavaliers. I like Virginia to get to their first Final Four under Tony Bennett (which seems insane to me).

Midwest Region

CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA – MARCH 09: Coby White #2 of the North Carolina Tar Heels reacts after a play against the Duke Blue Devils during their game at Dean Smith Center on March 09, 2019 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

The Midwest region should really boil down to two teams, much like the East did. And, spoiler alert, it should be the top two seeds in the region.

North Carolina is a popular pick to win the title this year, and rightfully so. The Tar Heels beat Duke twice (albeit without Zion), which is impressive. They beat Florida State. They beat Virginia Tech. They also beat Gonzaga in December and scored 103 points in that game.

This team is good, which pains me to say. It may be one of best coaching jobs of Roy Williams’ career, too.

FiveThirtyEight gives the Tar Heels a 9% chance to win it all this year. It would be their second title in three years and fourth under Roy Williams. But they have to get there first, and Virginia would be waiting for them in the Final Four.

The Tar Heels are far better than any teams they’d face up through the Sweet 16, and I have them advancing to the Elite 8 pretty easily.

Utah State could be a team to watch, though. The 8 seed won 28 games this year and shoots the three ball well, which would be the key to any upset over North Carolina. But don’t bet on it to happen.

Auburn and Kansas should win their first round matchups and face off in the second round. The Tigers are coming off the SEC Tournament as champions, while Kansas has been reeling since the middle of the season. Their run of 14 straight Big 12 regular season championships came to an end this year (which is incredibly impressive), and I don’t have any faith in the Jayhawks. Auburn relies on the three pointer as well, and if they’re on, they’ll beat Kansas easily. If they can’t hit shots, Kansas should win. But neither of them will beat the Tar Heels.

A lot of people seem to like Houston in the bottom part of this bracket, but I don’t trust the Cougars. For one, I can’t stand their coach. In case you didn’t know, Kelvin Sampson is the head coach at Houston; you know, the same Kelvin Sampson who cheated and drove Indiana’s program into the ground. I like Houston to beat Georgia State in the first round, though if you’re really feeling spicy, take the Panthers in an upset.

However, I see Houston losing to Iowa State in round two. The Cyclones should dispatch of the Buckeyes easily, as I find Ohio State supremely overrated. I like Iowa State to make the Sweet 16.

They’ll play Kentucky. The Wildcats would face either Wofford, a team that made its way into the Top 25 this season, but hasn’t fared well against stiff competition, or Seton Hall. That game could be interesting, because the Pirates beat Kentucky in December. Either way, I don’t see Kentucky losing early, as they have improved loads since the beginning of the year.

They should also take care of business against Iowa State, which sets up a rematch in the Elite 8. Kentucky beat North Carolina 80-72 earlier in the season on a neutral court in Chicago. Both teams have come a long way since the start of the year, but I think the Tar Heels will prove to be too much for the Wildcats this time around, and North Carolina will advance to the Final Four.

Final Four

So it all comes down to this. My Final Four is Duke vs. Michigan and Virginia vs. North Carolina. The three ACC teams that earned #1 seeds should also earn their spots in the Final Four.

If you’ve read this far, I really appreciate you. Just wanted you to know that.

Duke and Michigan would be a heck of a game to watch. Both teams can score the basketball at a high pace and both teams play good defense. Of course, Duke is the favorite, but in this matchup, I think the luck runs out. It only takes one game for star freshmen to show their inexperience, and when it happens, teams don’t usually survive.

As much as I like Duke and the sheer amount of talent they have on the roster, I think the Michigan Wolverines pull this one out and make it to the National Championship game for the second straight season.

On the other side, we have an ACC rematch in Virginia vs. North Carolina. The only regular season matchup between these two teams was won by the Cavaliers, and I expect the same result. As good as the North Carolina offense has been lately, Virginia’s offense has been great all year, and that defense…well, I don’t need to tell you anymore about that. The Virginia Cavaliers will go to the National Championship game.

National Championship

A Virginia/Michigan National Championship game would be awesome. Michigan’s ADE was actually better than Virginia’s this season: the Wolverines had the 2nd best defense compared to Virginia, who finished with the 5th best defense.

You know what they say: defense wins championships.

But offense helps too, and while Michigan isn’t bad (18th AOE), Virginia is that much better. After the most humiliating exit in NCAA Tournament history in 2018, Tony Bennett and the Virginia Cavaliers will climb and conquer the mountain in 2019 and win their first National Championship. Michigan will again settle for runners-up, the 3rd time that’s happened since 2013.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA – MARCH 09: Head coach Tony Bennett of the Virginia Cavaliers cuts down the net after winning a game against the Louisville Cardinals to a clinch a share of the ACC regular season title at John Paul Jones Arena on March 9, 2019 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images)

Expect to see essentially this same image again on Monday, April 8th, when Virginia wins the Big Dance.

Indiana Basketball and the Season of Dreams, Nightmares, and Hope Reborn

Flashes of greatness show glimpses of what the Hoosiers could have achieved this year…and still might

By: Jesse

Juwan Morgan (13) and De’Ron Davis (20) celebrate the Hoosiers victory over Michigan State on March 2nd | Photo by: Bobby Goddin, Indy Star

Indiana Hoosiers basketball.

For some, those words are equivalent to “Christianity” or “Buddhism.” For some, Indiana basketball is religion.

A season like this one leads to a lot of lost souls.

The Hoosiers currently sit at 17-14 (8-12 Big Ten) entering the Big Ten tournament this Thursday, in a far better position today than they were when I began drafting this piece. They occupy the #9 seed and play #8 Ohio State in what could be an NCAA tournament elimination game. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi currently has Ohio State as one of his “Last Four In” in his current Bracketology projections, while Indiana is the first team in his “First Four Out” category. A win Thursday may not get the Hoosiers over the hump, but the season isn’t over yet.

But this season wasn’t supposed to be like this. This season was supposed to be far more productive. The Hoosiers were supposed to be contenders in the Big Ten, even if it was an outside shot. They were supposed to be a shoo-in for the NCAA tournament.

If you’ve read any college basketball posts on here, or if you know me personally, you’ll know that I’m a graduate of Indiana University. I love me some Hoosier basketball. And I’m as disappointed in the way this season has gone – at points – as much as anyone else. I’m also impressed with what this team has achieved, in a sense. But I’m also a realist, and I want to look at the whole season to find out how we got here today.

Let’s take a look at some major events from this season.

April 30th, 2018 – Romeo Langford commits

Romeo Langford affixes the IU cap to his head, committing to the Hoosiers | Photo by: Chris Howell (Herald-Times)

Coming off a 16-win season in his first as head coach, Archie Miller secured the best high school player in Indiana and a Top 10 recruit nationwide.

Romeo Langford decided to stay home.

Langford, whose recruitment seemingly had more twists and turns than an Indiana backroad, chose to stick with the Hoosiers over Kansas and Vanderbilt. Early on, it seemed that he would join Darius Garland and play at Vanderbilt for (likely) his only season in college basketball.

But in choosing to make his decision in front of a raucous crowd at New Albany High School, Romeo signaled to all Hoosier fans – despite faking for the Vanderbilt hat – that he was committed to helping Archie kickstart the program once again.

But this season hasn’t been exactly what anyone envisioned on that night in April, least of all Langford. Averaging 16.7 points per game, good for 6th in the Big Ten and most among freshmen in the conference, Romeo has been mostly as good as advertised. But the help hasn’t really been there outside of Juwan Morgan. We’ll get to that.

Langford is projected to be a lottery pick in this year’s NBA Draft, all but guaranteeing that he’ll be a one-and-done for the Hoosiers. While that has been much debated among Hoosier circles, it’s unlikely that he’ll return for a sophomore season, even with Trayce Jackson-Davis, Armaan Franklin, and potentially Keion Brooks Jr. coming in next year. Brooks will announce his destination this coming Friday, March 15th.

Let’s get into the peaks and valleys of the 2018-19 Indiana Hoosiers.

November 14th, 2018 – A home thrashing of a ranked team

BLOOMINGTON, IN – NOVEMBER 14: Juwan Morgan #13 of the Indiana Hoosiers celebrates a basket during a college basketball game against the Marquette Golden Eagles at the Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall on November 14, 2018 in Bloomington, Indiana. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

In the third game of the season, Indiana methodically took apart then-#24 Marquette, hanging 96 points on them and limiting the Golden Eagles to just 73.

It was one of those big, signature, non-conference home wins that Hoosier fans have become accustomed to year in and year out.

The Hoosier defense held Markus Howard to just 18 points that night. Romeo Langford led all scorers with 22 points, and one was one of five Hoosiers in double figures (Evan Fitzner – 16, Morgan – 13, Al Durham – 13, and Robert Phinisee – 12).

The season was off to a promising start. Until about two weeks ago, Marquette looked like a dark horse title contender. In fact, I wrote about them as such. Since then, they’ve gone 1-4. (My bad.)

But the Marquette win is one of Indiana’s many victories this season that are keeping them in the conversation, despite 14 losses and a losing record in conference play. Had the Hoosiers lost to Marquette and the rest of the season played out as it did, they wouldn’t be on the bubble.

Instead, on November 14th, the Hoosiers took a big step forward.

December 15th, 2018 – Juwan’s career high and Big Shot Rob

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – DECEMBER 15: Indiana Hoosiers guard Rob Phinisee (10) celebrates after hitting the game winning three pointer during the Crossroads Classic basketball game between the Butler Bulldogs and Indiana Hoosiers on December 15, 2018, at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, IN. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Indiana came into the Crossroads Classic with an 8-2 (2-0) record. The Hoosiers were coming off a huge 68-67 win over Louisville the week before, adding another Quadrant 1 win to their resume.

This game wasn’t pretty. The Hoosiers struggled mightily in the first half, and couldn’t find their momentum in the second. But they kept it close enough to give themselves a chance, much like the situation they’re in today.

Then Robert “Big Shot Rob” Phinisee happened.

To be fair, without Juwan Morgan, this game was way over. Morgan poured in a career-high 35 points and got the Hoosiers a basket seemingly every time they needed one. This should have been known as the “Juwan Morgan Game.”

But on the last possession, Archie Miller’s drawn-up play failed. Devonte Green couldn’t get it to Romeo Langford, who was option #1. He couldn’t find Morgan, who was option #2.

So Phinisee ran toward the ball, caught it with 1.7 seconds left, dribbled once to his left, and heaved a 25-footer at the buzzer.

Nothing but net.

Phinisee’s legend, which is sure to grow over the next three seasons, was born on December 15th.

The win over Butler, who was 7-2 entering the contest, looks far less impressive for the Hoosiers now. The Bulldogs finished in the basement of the Big East with a 16-15 record this season, and barring a miraculous (read: classic Butler) run through the conference tournament, their season will end without an NCAA bid.

But for Indiana? The win gave them momentum in closing out the non-conference schedule over Christmas Break, and they kept it rolling with a home victory over Illinois in the first game of the new year.

That pushed them to 12-2 (3-0 Big Ten) with a showdown looming against #2 Michigan in Ann Arbor.

January 6th, 2019 – The freefall begins

ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN – JANUARY 06: Justin Smith #3 of the Indiana Hoosiers dunks over Ignas Brazdeikis #13 of the Michigan Wolverines during the first half at Crisler Arena on January 06, 2019 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Michigan won the game 74-63. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The #21 Hoosiers never found their footing in the Crisler Center, dropping the contest to the #2 Wolverines 74-63. The picture above was a rare highlight for the Hoosiers in the game.

Morgan scored 25 points and snagged 8 rebounds, while Langford added 17 points. Nobody else reached double figures.

It was a tough loss against a very talented Michigan team (then 15-0 overall and 4-0 in the Big Ten), but looking back, it signaled something else that nobody ever saw coming.

The beginning of a seven-game conference losing streak, and the beginning of a 13-game stretch that saw the Hoosiers post a 1-12 record.

In case you had forgotten where we are today, Indiana’s record is 17-14. Twelve of those losses came during that stretch, and it started in Michigan. It seems fitting that the losing streak would end in Michigan, too.

February 2nd, 2019 – Is that hope I feel?

EAST LANSING, MI – FEBRUARY 02: Indiana Hoosiers celebrates 79 – 75 win against Michigan State Spartans at Breslin Center on February 2, 2019 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

A dejected Hoosiers squad, in the middle of that seven-game losing streak, made the trek up to East Lansing. Not only were the Hoosiers squaring off with then-#6 Michigan State, but College Gameday was in town. The crowd was more electric than usual in the Breslin Center.

And somehow, some way: Archie Miller earned his signature win as head coach of the Hoosiers, as they knocked off the Spartans 79-75 in overtime.

Without Juwan Morgan, and without Zach McRoberts.

McRoberts missed the whole contest, while Morgan left the game after just 13 minutes with a shoulder injury and did not return.

You can count me among the Hoosier fans who thought this one was over as soon as Morgan got hurt.

But Indiana kept it close. They were down three at half. They chipped away. And thanks to a Herculean team effort and horrendous foul shooting by Michigan State (8-22 from the line!), the Hoosiers pulled off the upset and stunned the Spartan faithful in East Lansing.

Romeo Langford paced the Hoosiers with 19 points, and like the game against Marquette, five Hoosiers were in double figures: Al Durham (14), Justin Smith (13), De’Ron Davis (12, including the game-clinching free throws), and Devonte Green (11).

Indiana, though barely chugging along at 13-9 (4-7 Big Ten), was still alive.

February 19th, 2019 – Bitter loss to a hated rival

BLOOMINGTON, INDIANA – FEBRUARY 19: Justin Smith #3 of the Indiana Hoosiers shoots the ball against the Purdue Boilermakers at Assembly Hall on February 19, 2019 in Bloomington, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

But the Michigan State win wasn’t the turn-around point in the season. Not even close.

In one of the ugliest basketball games I have ever watched, Indiana couldn’t defend its home court against its most hated rival, losing to Purdue 48-46 on a Matt Haarms tip-in with 3.1 seconds remaining.

It was perfect karma, of course, as the Hoosier students directed a particularly foul chant at Haarms during the game.

Indiana did everything right against Purdue, except score the basketball.

The over/under was set for the game at 137 points, a modest total. But the two teams couldn’t even break 100.

Purdue shot 31% from the field, Indiana 27%. Both teams made 20% from beyond the arc. And neither team was great from the free throw line: Purdue was 4-9, while Indiana was 11-18.

Romeo Langford again led the Hoosiers in scoring with 14. He was the only Hoosier in double figures.

Purdue’s only player in double figures? Ryan Cline (11 points).

Indiana’s defense (and his poor shot selection) kept Carsen Edwards to just 9 points on 4-24 shooting. Edwards was just awful the entire night, but the Hoosiers still couldn’t manage to beat the Boilers. Edwards took 40% of Purdue’s shots alone, missing 20 (!) of them, and still.

And still.

Week of February 25th – March 2nd, 2019 – Clawing back

BLOOMINGTON, IN – MARCH 02: Justin Smith #3 of the Indiana Hoosiers and Devonte Green #11 of the Indiana Hoosiers congratulate near the end of the game against the Michigan State Spartans at Assembly Hall on March 2, 2019 in Bloomington, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

At points during the 1-12 stretch, it sure seemed like the Hoosiers had given up. Like they had just completely thrown in the towel on the season.

They didn’t.

The week after the loss at home to Purdue, followed by a heartbreaker in overtime in Iowa City, Indiana was back at home to host the #19 Wisconsin Badgers.

And as much as they tried to give the game away in the 2nd half and both overtimes, Indiana made one more play than Wisconsin did and upset the Badgers, winning 75-73 in double overtime.

The hero this time? Romeo, of course.

When Indiana needed a basket the most, they turned to Langford.

He delivered.

Langford crossed his defender, drove hard to the right, and laid the ball in off the glass with 0.7 seconds left to give the Hoosiers the victory.

Poor foul shooting again was a factor in the win, as the Badgers went 13-25 from the line. Star senior forward Ethan Happ scored 23 points and pulled down 11 rebounds, but missed half of his 10 free throws.

The Hoosiers were alive again, but the week wasn’t over.

On Saturday, March 2nd, Indiana played host to the #6 Michigan State Spartans, who were seeking revenge.

They never found it.

The Hoosiers scored the final seven points of the game, holding Michigan State scoreless over the last 4:15, and upset the Spartans once again.

The star of the game was Justin Smith, the sophomore forward who had shown flashes of greatness, but never seemed to be able to harness the full star power that Tom Crean and Rob Judson thought he possessed when they recruited him, and the same star power that led Archie Miller to keep him on the roster when he was hired.

Smith scored 24 points, 4 rebounds, and had just a single turnover in 35 minutes of game time. He had been benched earlier in the season, and reinserted in the starting lineup later on. This game was when he proved he belonged.

In a game where Juwan Morgan and Romeo Langford combined for only 16 points, Smith stepped up, and so did Devonte Green, who added 13 of his own, including shooting 3-5 from three point range.

The team effort, including a massive individual defensive effort by Rob Phinisee against Michigan State’s Big Ten Player of the Year Cassius Winston on the game’s final possession, gave the Hoosiers the regular season sweep over the Spartans.

Today – March 11th, 2019

So, where does Indiana stand today?

Again, the record is 17-14 (8-12 Big Ten). They have six Quadrant 1 wins, which is the newest fancy way for statisticians and analysts to group teams based on performance. They’ll be the #9 seed in the Big Ten Tournament and play Ohio State on Thursday at 12:30 EST. As I detailed above, that game could potentially be an elimination game for the NCAA Tournament, as Ohio State is currently in (but squarely on the bubble), and Indiana is currently out (but squarely on the bubble).

If the Hoosiers beat the Buckeyes on Thursday, a rematch – for the third time – with Michigan State awaits on Friday. This season has taught me to never say never with the Hoosiers, but beating the co-Big Ten Champions a third time in one year? That’s tough.

If Indiana can somehow beat the Spartans for a third time, there’s no doubt in my mind that they’ll be rewarded with an NCAA Tournament berth. Of course, if they just win the whole conference tournament, that’d make it easy on everyone involved.

What are the other scenarios?

Well, if Indiana beats Ohio State but loses to Michigan State, they are still firmly in the conversation. As much as I want to say they’ve done enough at that point to get in, it wouldn’t surprise me if they do get left out of the field of 68 on Selection Sunday. They might be rewarded with a top seed in the NIT, but that’s not what the Hoosiers have been playing for this season.

On the other hand, if the Buckeyes win on Thursday, Indiana’s season is over. Again, they would likely earn an invitation to the NIT, but the NCAA Tournament would be entirely out of reach. There’s no scenario where the Hoosiers get into the field with a loss on Thursday; I just can’t see it happening.

If nothing else, the Hoosiers have at least taken a few years off of all of our lives this season. It could be all over on Thursday, and the stress of Indiana basketball could all melt away until next year.

Or, it could just be getting started.

NL Central Preview

A wide open field in baseball’s toughest division

By: Jesse

Midwest Sports Pulse’s penultimate division preview will take a look at the toughest division in baseball, though the argument can be made that our last division – the NL East (forthcoming) – could also hold that crown. However, I am deciding to give that title to the National League Central, and in no way, shape, or form is that because of any bias (it’s not like I’m a huge Cubs fan or anything).

To give you, my valued reader, some background on my approach, I like to do my own research before diving into a piece like this. I try and read other season preview/prediction pieces by big J journalists, look at record projections from multiple sources, and of course, focus on what each team has added and subtracted in the offseason.

The NL Central (by far) has the widest variety of predictions and projections. I am so excited for this season, but I’m also a little bit nervous (again, not that I’m a huge Cubs fan).

The Milwaukee Brewers are the reigning NL Central champions, having taken the division in a one-game tiebreaker against the Chicago Cubs in Game 163 last season. But every team has so many questions and so many “what-ifs” that this division is literally wide open.

Let’s get to it.

St. Louis Cardinals

Projected record: 94-68

Does adding Paul Goldschmidt make the Cardinals the favorites in the NL Central? You bet it does.

The St. Louis Cardinals have not been to the playoffs since 2015.

That’s kind of a shocking sentence to read, isn’t it?

The Cardinals, along with the Red Sox, have arguably been among the most consistent teams in baseball since 2000, that position bolstered by their 2006 and 2011 World Series titles.

But the National League Central, specifically the Cubs and Brewers, have lapped the Cardinals in the last few years, and St. Louis is not content to sit idly by and hang out in 3rd place in the division.

So what did they do? Well, for starters, they brought in Paul Goldschmidt, one of the best hitters in baseball. The 31-year-old first baseman, who had spent his entire career with the Arizona Diamondbacks, has been an All-Star in every season since 2013; he also has three Gold Glove Awards, three Silver Slugger Awards, and has finished in the top 3 in MVP voting three times as well.

And he’s relatively cheap. Goldschmidt is due $14.5 million this season, which is obviously a lot of money, but a player of his caliber could easily be making $25-30 million or more. Goldschmidt has either hit .300 or hit at least 24 home runs in each season since 2013. He’ll hit free agency after this season, and will no doubt command a large contract in 2020, whether he stays with St. Louis or goes elsewhere.

But that wasn’t the only piece St. Louis brought in.

The Cardinals signed lefty reliever Andrew Miller to a two-year, $25 million deal this offseason. While Miller wasn’t quite as good in 2018, it’s hard to argue that there’s been a reliever who has been better since 2016. Miller will strengthen a bullpen that was…not great in 2018. Not terrible, but not great.

Of course, the Cardinals still have Matt Carpenter, who was the favorite for National League MVP at different points throughout the season. They have Marcell Ozuna, who is coming off shoulder surgery in the offseason and hopes to be more forceful than he was in 2018 (though he still finished with a .280 batting average, 23 home runs, and 88 RBI).

The Cardinals also have a plethora of starting pitching options. Carlos Martinez, Jack Flaherty, Michael Mikolas, and Michael Wacha give them a solid top four. Beyond that, there are a number of other names that could fill out the rotation, including Alex Reyes, John Gant, Dakota Hudson, and Adam Wainwright. Any of those names could be swapped in and out of the rotation if necessary, and the others can be added to the bullpen or even dangled at the trade deadline to fill other needs.

One player to keep an eye on this year will be Dexter Fowler. I have a soft spot for Dex, admittedly, but 2018 was absolutely brutal. A huge part of the 2016 Cubs World Series Champion team, Fowler hit an abysmal .180 last season in just 90 games, and the fans in St. Louis noticed. The fan in me wants St. Louis to underperform my projection here, but I also want to see Fowler figure it out again. Dexter and his wife, Darya, are good and charitable people and always seemed to be doing something in Chicago to contribute to the community, and I know they’re doing the same in St. Louis.

In 2019, I think the Cardinals will be in the running for not just the division, but also home field advantage throughout the National League playoffs.

Chicago Cubs

Projected record: 91-71

Can “Bryzzo” lead the Cubs back to the playoffs in 2019?

The 2018 Chicago Cubs were one of the most topsy-turvy teams in baseball, falling apart in September and bowing out in the National League Wild Card game after losing the NL Central Division tiebreaker game to the Brewers.

Can the Cubs continue to compete in 2019, or is the window closing? Depends on who you ask.

I’ve seen some predictions that have the Cubs winning the NL Central in 2019, and others that have them projected to finish last in the division and not get to a .500 record. The latter, to me, is absurd, but baseball is a funny game.

The Cubs had a quiet offseason. The two big additions were…Daniel Descalso and Brad Brach? Descalso hit .238 last year and is a career .240 hitter, which doesn’t quite replace the numbers Daniel Murphy brought for the second half of the season in 2018. Brach is a better addition. The 6’6″ righty out of the bullpen had another solid campaign in 2018. He struggled in the beginning of the season in Baltimore, posting a 1-2 record with a 4.85 ERA in 42 games. However, he was dealt to Atlanta at the deadline and lowered that ERA to 1.52 in 27 games. Brach could potentially be a nice addition to the Cubs bullpen, an area that has been the source of thousands of headaches over the past…20 years in Chicago.

Yu Darvish was a disappointment, to say the least. After signing a 6-year, $126 million deal prior to 2018, he pitched in only eight games, going 1-3 with a 4.95 ERA before succumbing to injuries the rest of the year. Darvish says he feels healthy and is ready for a fresh start in 2019, but large contracts have historically made Cubs fans nervous, and it remains to be seen whether or not this is a good signing or a bad one.

Speaking of large contracts, Jon Lester will get the nod on Opening Day. His contract is one that paid off handsomely for both the Cubs and Lester. Lester has started 32 games in each of the past four seasons for the Cubs, and has 61 wins in those games. Along with Darvish and Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana, and Cole Hamels round out the rotation, giving the Cubs a solid (but aging) core.

On offense, Javier Baez was the undisputed star in 2018, finishing second in the MVP vote behind Christian Yelich (more on him shortly). Baez hit .290 with 34 home runs and 111 RBI in last season, showing the Cubs precisely why they used the 9th overall pick in the 2011 MLB Draft on him. El Mago was also a must-watch on the defensive side of the ball.

Elsewhere, Jason Heyward improved, hitting .270 in 2018. Anthony Rizzo had another stellar season at the plate, batting .283 and smacking 25 home runs while also driving in 101 runs. Those numbers went along with a Gold Glove Award at first base, Rizzo’s second such award. Kyle Schwarber hit 26 home runs in 137 games, but was mostly an all-or-nothing hitter, as his average was a measly .238. Willson Contreras regressed from 2016 and 2017, and he’ll obviously look to bounce back in 2019.

The last three players to watch include one of the faces of the franchise, his replacement for much of 2018, and one whose offseason has consisted of a lot of negative press.

Kris Bryant missed 60 games in 2018, and the Cubs still managed to win 95 games. When Bryant is healthy, he’s obviously one of the premiere hitters in baseball. He won Rookie of the Year in 2015 and followed it up with an MVP Award in 2016, along with – oh yeah – a World Series championship.

But the big question for Bryant is whether or not he can stay healthy in 2019. Luckily for the Cubs, David Bote was an absolute gem at third base in Bryant’s absence. Bote was terrific on defense, committing just five errors in 75 games. He also hit one of the most memorable home runs at Wrigley Field in recent memory, a walk-off grand slam against the Washington Nationals when the Cubs were trailing 3-0 in the bottom of the 9th and in desperate need of some motivation. His batting average was below par at .239, but he was still a key part of the Cubs making the playoffs.

The last player to watch this season is Addison Russell. Russell was accused of domestic violence by his now ex-wife, Melisa Reidy, in a long and detailed post about the abuse. Major League Baseball placed Russell on administrative leave on September 19th of last season and later suspended him for the first 40 games of the upcoming season.

In the interest of full disclosure, Addison Russell was one of my favorite players on the Cubs until September of last year. He’s a wizard on defense, and while his stats at the plate haven’t been great, he’s provided some key at-bats and hits when the Cubs have needed them the most, including during the 2016 World Series run.

But now? I think Addison Russell is a scumbag. On one hand, I don’t necessarily disagree with giving someone another chance, but I’m sad to see that it’s with the Cubs. I wish they would have cut the cord and let someone else take him on, if they chose to. Baez can more than fill in at shortstop, and Descalso can play second until Nico Hoerner is ready to be an every day player. The Stanford product is coming up as a shortstop, but depending on where Baez wants to play (or where Joe Maddon wants him to play), Hoerner could play either middle infield spot. And if Descalso doesn’t work out, Ian Happ (.233, 15 home runs, 44 RBI) can play second base, as well as Ben Zobrist.

If the Cubs stay healthy, they’ll compete for the division crown again. If injuries plague them like they did in 2018, it’ll be tough to compete in a division where every team has gotten stronger while the Cubs hunkered down with the pieces they have. My biggest worry, apart from injuries, is that the negative attention from Russell will form a divide in this team that they won’t recover from. Not that the divide will be between players who defend Russell and those who don’t, but more so that the tension and distractions in the locker room will be too much to overcome, and that the Cubs will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

Milwaukee Brewers

Projected record: 88-74

Can Christian Yelich have another MVP season? | Photo by: Ian D’Andrea

The Milwaukee Brewers are one of the most interesting teams in baseball. The defending NL Central champions added a good bat this offseason and return the reigning NL MVP in Christian Yelich.

But did they do enough?

The biggest area of concern for the Brewers is their starting pitching. They really don’t have a traditional ace in the rotation. Jhoulys Chacin filled the #1 spot last season, but can he do it again? Chacin went 15-8 with a 3.50 ERA, throwing 192.2 innings in 35 starts and racking up 156 strikeouts. There’s no doubt that Chacin had an excellent season, but the big question is whether he can repeat or exceed his production from last year.

The Brewers only had three guys start more than 20 games (Chacin, Chase Anderson, and Junior Guerra) last season, and Anderson and Guerra were decent at best. Jimmy Nelson will be back at some point in 2019 after missing all of last season following surgery to repair a torn labrum. Milwaukee also has Zach Davies, who was terrific in 2017 but faltered in 2018, dealing with injuries and inconsistency. If the rotation can hold up, the Brewers have a shot to win 90+ games again and compete at the top.

The bullpen is an entirely different story. Milwaukee’s relief pitchers were phenomenal in 2018, led by All-Star Josh Hader. The 24-year-old went 6-1 in relief, posting a 2.43 ERA and striking out 143 batters in just 81 innings pitched. Hader, along with division rival Andrew Miller, are among the top relievers in baseball, and he was a standout for the Brewers last season.

Corey Knebel, like Davies, dealt with injuries and inconsistent play in 2018, but he can be a reliable closer for the Brewers. Jeremy Jeffress (8-1, 1.29 ERA) adds another great option, though his status for Opening Day is in doubt as he works through a shoulder issue.

The offensive attack for Milwaukee is a lot of the same from last year, with the exception of Yasmani Grandal, the newest addition from Los Angeles. Grandal, who signed a one-year, $18.25 million deal with the Brewers, can be counted on for 20 home runs this year, having reached that point in each of his last three seasons with the Dodgers.

Lorenzo Cain, who hit .308 last season, will still be at the top of the lineup for Milwaukee, and as a career .293 hitter, another season like last isn’t out of the question. He also provides solid defense in center field, having committed just six errors in 138 games in 2018.

Jesus Aguilar absolutely raked ML pitchers last year, mashing 35 home runs and driving in 108 runs in 149 games. He’ll be another player to watch this season to see if he can repeat those kinds of numbers in 2019.

Ryan Braun has been on a slight decline over the past two seasons, hitting just .254, though he did manage to hit 20 home runs. The former NL MVP has faded from being the centerpiece of the Milwaukee lineup, but if he can be efficient this season, he’ll still be able to provide a boost to the Brewers.

And of course, there’s always Christian Yelich. Yelich was outstanding in 2019, as his NL MVP Award can attest to. He hit .326 last season which led the National League. He also hit 36 home runs, drove in 110 runs, and posted an OPS of 1.000, which is pretty dang good. From April to August, Yelich was a contender for the MVP, but it seemed like Javy Baez was in the driver’s seat. Then, when the Brewers needed him to step up the most, Yelich hit .352 in September, adding 10 home runs and getting on base in half of his at-bats. His performance in September not only won him the MVP, but also won the Brewers the division.

Milwaukee’s offense and bullpen are good enough to repeat as champions of the Central, but the starting pitching is what concerns me the most. If the rotation outperforms itself, don’t be shocked if Milwaukee makes me look dumb and does end up winning the division again. But with as much emphasis as there is on good pitching in the Majors, the Brewers’ options are enough to scare me away from predicting them to win the NL Central in back-to-back years.

Cincinnati Reds

Projected record: 80-82

Did the Reds do enough this offseason to compete? Joey Votto hopes so | Photo by: Erik Drost

I’m not sure any team had as productive an offseason as the Cincinnati Reds did this year.

Of course, they didn’t sign Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, but they’ve added numerous veteran pieces to immediately make themselves a better team.

The Reds traded for Sonny Gray, the former New York Yankee, and signed him to a three-year extension before doing so. Gray didn’t post his best numbers in 2018, but he’s the kind of arm that can keep you in a game and give you an opportunity to win.

The Reds also traded for Tanner Roark, sending minor league pitcher Tanner Rainey to Washington in the process. Roark, like Gray, struggled last season, but went 16-10 with a 2.83 ERA in 2016, finishing 10th in the Cy Young voting. Cincinnati is hoping he can revert to those numbers and that a new environment will help him regain his consistency.

But the biggest trade for Cincinnati this offseason was a multi-player deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Reds sent Homer Bailey, Jeter Downs (#6 prospect in the Dodgers farm system now), and Josiah Gray (#10 in the Dodgers farm system) to Los Angeles in exchange for Alex Wood, Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig, Kyle Farmer, and cash considerations to help with Kemp’s huge contract.

That’s quite a haul. Kemp hit .290 last season and added 21 home runs. He gives the Reds a veteran presence in the outfield, along with Puig. Yasiel Puig has been one of the…most interesting…players in Major League Baseball the past few seasons, but he brings consistency at the plate and one of the best outfield arms in all of baseball.

Alex Wood has been a key piece of the Dodgers last two World Series runs, going 9-7 in 2018 with a 3.68 ERA and 135 strikeouts. His 2017 was even better, as he finished 16-3 (!!) with a 2.72 ERA and 151 strikeouts. He’s also thrown 151 innings in each of the last two seasons and has shown his durability.

Not to be forgotten, Kyle Farmer brings another option at third base or the outfield. He’s been limited at the Major League level, appearing in just 59 games over the last two seasons, but he’s also hit minor league pitching very well, at or near .300 over the past two seasons. However, Eugenio Suarez hit 34 home runs in 2018 while playing third base for the Reds, so that position isn’t just open for Farmer to take.

The Reds lost Billy Hamilton, the speedy centerfielder, to Kansas City in the offseason, and while his bat was never one of the best in the lineup, his ability to steal bases might be something Cincinnati misses. Tucker Barnhart was solid behind the plate in 2018, and Scooter Gennett has had two excellent seasons in Cincinnati. You might remember him from hitting four home runs in a game in 2017, but he was an All-Star last year and hit .310 over the course of the season.

Joey Votto had statistically one of his worst seasons last year (excluding his injury-shortened campaign in 2014), and he still hit .284 and posted a .417 on-base percentage. Those are numbers that any manager would love to have, and if that’s Votto’s worst, sign me up for a “bounce back” year. He only hit 12 home runs, but the six-time All Star and 2010 MVP has one of the sweetest swings in baseball, and he should be another piece that makes this Reds team more competitive in 2018.

There are a few holes on this roster still, but the Reds are in a far better position than they were a year ago at this time. They should hover right around the .500 mark as far as their record goes, and they could be a real headache for any of their division rivals who are battling it out at the top. This isn’t a team I would want to see late in the season if my team has a chance to make the playoffs.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Projected record: 74-88

When will Gregory Polanco be ready? | Photo by: Keith Allison

The Pirates are another team that have a solid squad overall, but it just isn’t enough to compete for a division championship, especially in this crowded field.

Gregory Polanco (pictured) will be one to watch this upcoming season. He’s never really had a breakout year with the Pirates, and coming off of shoulder surgery last September, Polanco is unlikely to be ready for Opening Day. But if all goes according to plan (a mid-April return), Polanco could be in line for that season that makes him a league-wide star. He hit .254 last season with 23 home runs and 81 RBI before being shut down in September. A healthy Polanco could see his batting average and power numbers go up in 2019, and 30+ homers isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

The Pirates acquired right-handed pitcher Chris Archer at the trade deadline last season in a move that was confusing to some. Archer is a great add, don’t get me wrong, but the Pirates finished just three games over .500 last year and they didn’t (and still don’t) have the big pieces that many feel they need to win a division championship. Archer and Jameson Taillon will lead the rotation this season. Taillon was very good in 2018, going 14-10 with a 3.20 ERA. They also have Joe Musgrove and Trevor Williams in the starting rotation, which gives them one of the best top fours in baseball.

The Pirates also added Lonnie Chisenhall and Melky Cabrera at the end of last season, which gives them some depth in the outfield with Chisenhall, while Cabrera is likely to start the season in the minor leagues. With Polanco likely out for Opening Day, Chisenhall may get the nod in right field.

Elsewhere on offense, Corey Dickerson hit .300 last season and played a solid left field. He’ll hold that spot throughout the season, barring injury. Starling Marte will be back in center field for the Pirates. The two-time Gold Glove winner brings speed and efficiency to the outfield, along with a pretty consistent bat at the top of the lineup.

Francisco Cervelli and Elias Diaz split time behind the plate for Pittsburgh last year, and it seems that may be the scenario again in 2019. After losing Josh Harrison this offseason to Detroit, another Josh will play a key role in the infield, this one being Josh Bell. Bell hit .261 in 2018 and drove in 62 runs.

Shortstop will be a position to watch in Pittsburgh this year. The starting job will probably go to Erik Gonzalez, who spent the last three years in Cleveland as a backup to Francisco Lindor. Gonzalez hit .265 in 81 games last year in Cleveland. If he doesn’t work out, Pittsburgh has several options in the minor leagues, including Oneil Cruz, Cole Tucker, and Kevin Newman. Newman is the most MLB-ready of the three, as he spent 31 games with the club in 2018, but the Pirates could try and make room for Tucker this season as well. He spent most of last year in Double-A, and a September call-up isn’t out of the question. Cruz, if he’s able to prove himself in the minor leagues, is still another year or two from making the roster.

I think the Pirates are a few pieces and a season or two away from fighting for the top spot in the NL Central, but that timing could end up benefitting them, as the windows for the Cubs and Brewers are likely to be closing in the next few years as well. In 2021 or 2022, the Pirates and Reds could be fighting for the division crown, but it certainly isn’t going to happen in 2019.

NL West Preview

With the offseason fireworks likely over, a favorite emerges…or rather, stays in place

By: Jesse

With the Bryce Harper sweepstakes officially over (in case you missed it, he signed a 13-year, $330 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies this past week), the National League West picture seems to be firmly in place for the upcoming 2019 season.

The biggest offseason winners were the San Diego Padres, for reasons we will get into shortly. But the division seems likely to fall into familiar hands for yet another season, while the rest of the teams scramble for position. From my perspective, two teams could potentially make the playoffs this season out of the NL West, and they are the same two as last year.

Without further ado…

Los Angeles Dodgers

Projected record: 95-67

Corey Seager takes a swing during the 2017 season. He missed all but 26 games in 2018.

The Los Angeles Dodgers are the most likely team to win the National League West in 2019, which would be their 7th straight division crown. They’ve been to two straight World Series and dropped them both, first to Houston and last year to Boston. With as much success as these Dodgers have had in the regular season (and World Series appearances are nothing to sneeze at either!), they haven’t been able to capture that elusive championship, their last coming in 1988.

The roster remains largely unchanged from last year, though there are two additions to speak of that should boost the Dodgers. The first is a true addition: A.J. Pollock signed a four-year deal with the club this offseason. He hit .257 last season in Arizona with 21 home runs and 65 RBI, and he should provide a solid bat in the middle of the lineup.

The second addition isn’t really an addition, but a re-welcoming. Corey Seager is working to be back by Opening Day for the Dodgers in 2019. Seager was the 2016 National League Rookie of the Year, as well as an All-Star in both 2016 and 2017. Last season, he played 26 games before requiring Tommy John surgery and missing the rest of the season. He also underwent hip surgery in 2018 while sidelined. Seager’s consistency and ability to make an impact on both sides of the ball should be a welcome sight for Dodgers fans when he is able to rejoin the team.

Another big name in Los Angeles is, of course, Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw complained of shoulder discomfort during spring training in February, and the Dodgers have been monitoring his progress closely since. His goal, like Seager’s, is to be ready by Opening Day, but all parties involved know the risks of rushing a pitcher back. If he can’t go, expect Walker Buehler to be the starter on Opening Day.

The bats in the Dodgers lineup are near the top of the league, including both Seager and Pollock. But Cody Bellinger brings power to the middle of the lineup as well. Bellinger hit 25 home runs and played in all 162 games last season; he hit 39 in 2017, and the Dodgers expect him to be closer to that number. Max Muncy had an outstanding 2018, hitting 35 home runs in 137 games. Joc Pederson added another 25 homers last season, and Justin Turner, though he missed considerable time in 2018, still hit .312 in 103 games.

The Dodgers pitching staff is also one of the best in baseball. They brought in reliever Joe Kelly in free agency from Boston, and he figures to be the setup man for Kenley Jansen, who had 38 saves last season. Along with Buehler and Kershaw, the Dodgers starting rotation includes Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda, and Hyun-jin Riu. When healthy, those five combined to go 43-28 in 2019. Ross Stripling figures to get some starts, though he could become more of a long relief option out of the bullpen.

Los Angeles offloaded some big names from the payroll in December, when they dealt Alex Wood, Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig, and Kyle Farmer to the Cincinnati Reds for Homer Bailey, Jeter Downs, and Josiah Gray. That list of former Dodgers includes one of my personal least favorite players in baseball, which is a shame, because now I have to watch the Cubs play against him 19 times this year.

All things considered, a healthy Dodgers squad may not just be the favorite to win the NL West, but the National League Pennant again. It seems like the pieces are all in place, and 60% of the NL West is at least another season away from competing, so expect Los Angeles to reign supreme again and win their 7th straight division title.

Colorado Rockies

Projected record: 90-72

Nolan Arenado (left) talks with now-division rival Manny Machado (13) during a 2016 contest | Photo by: Keith Allison

The Colorado Rockies made the playoffs last season and challenged the Dodgers all season long in the division, which is about what I expect them to do this year as well.

The big offseason storyline for Colorado was the extension that Nolan Arenado signed in February. The eight-year, $260 million deal gives Arenado an average annual value of $32.5 million, which makes him the highest paid position player in Major League history. Arenado, a perennial MVP contender, has hit at least 37 home runs in each of the last four seasons, and he’s also driven in at least 130 runs in three of the last four seasons. Those kinds of numbers are impressive, but when you factor in that Arenado is a career .291 hitter, it makes him worth the mega bucks.

The Rockies lost DJ LeMahieu to free agency this offseason, but they did sign Daniel Murphy to replace him. Murphy hit .299 with the Nationals and Cubs last season, which matches his career batting average. Losing one of the top hitters in baseball isn’t easy to do, but it makes it easier when you sign another top hitter in baseball.

Charlie Blackmon and Trevor Story are the other two bats that will complement Arenado the most. Story hit 37 home runs in 2018 and batted .291. He cut down on his strikeouts last season, going from 191 in 2017 to 168 last year, but the Rockies still want to see that number continue to decline. Story has been better at laying off pitches out of the zone, but a power bat generally comes along with a bigger strikeout number, and when it’s all said and done, I think the Rockies can live with the tradeoff.

Blackmon, who boasts one of the best hair/beard combos in professional sports, also hit .291 last season while contributing 29 dingers. An All-Star each of the last two seasons, Blackmon has established himself at the top of the Rockies lineup as one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball.

The Rockies pitching staff has potential to be their best in franchise history, led by Kyle Freeland. He went 17-7 with a 2.85 ERA last season and is looking to cement himself as the top starter in Rockies history over the next few years. German Marquez (14-11, 3.77 ERA), Jon Gray (12-9, 5.12), and Tyler Anderson (7-9, 4.55) give the Rockies four strong starters at the top of their rotation. Marquez also won the Silver Slugger Award for pitchers in the National League in 2018.

In the bullpen, Seung-hwan Oh made 73 appearances between Toronto and Colorado in 2018, striking out 79 batters and posting a 2.63 ERA. But the big name out of the bullpen will again be Wade Davis (another former Cub), who saved 43 games for the Rockies last year. If the starters can consistently make quality starts, the bullpen is good enough to get the game into the hands of Wade Davis in the 9th.

One thing to watch between now and Opening Day is the status of Carlos Gonzalez. Gonzalez has been a steady bat for Colorado in each of the last 10 seasons, though his power numbers dropped in 2018. He is currently a free agent, but has not ruled out a return to Colorado. If the Rockies are able to re-sign Gonzalez, I think his numbers are good enough to be a help, not a hindrance, as the Rockies seek a playoff spot again in 2019.

San Diego Padres

Projected record: 79-83

Bryce Harper (34) and Manny Machado (13) chat during a game in 2015. Will Machado be worth his contract? | Photo by: Keith Allison

The Padres are so close to competing in the National League West, but I believe they are one year away from being at the top of the division. And when it comes, they could stay atop the West for several seasons.

Signing Manny Machado to a 10-year, $300 million contract this offseason was obviously a huge step forward for the Padres. Though Machado has been criticized for his lack of hustle and effort from time to time, he’s still one of the top young talents in baseball, and the Padres clearly believe he’s worth a big chunk of the payroll.

That said, the Padres are still a couple of key (young) pieces away from being #1. The coolest thing about the Padres (from my perspective) is that their Low-A affiliate is the minor league team in the city where I live. Because of that, I get to watch a lot of the Padres top young prospects in action for the Fort Wayne Tincaps throughout each season. In fact, 24 of their top 30 prospects are currently in or have played for Fort Wayne. It’s been really cool to see some of those players make the show, and that should continue.

The consensus across a lot of different sites and organizations (including Major League Baseball, Bleacher Report, and ESPN) has the Padres with the best farm system in baseball. The amount of talent coming through the pipeline should make the Padres one of the top teams for years to come.

The biggest name currently in the minors right now is Fernando Tatis Jr. Tatis, ranked the #1 prospect by ESPN’s Keith Law (and #2 by MLB Pipeline), should make his big league debut early during the 2019 season, and even when he arrives, San Diego will still have a top 3 (and maybe STILL #1) system in baseball. I remember watching Tatis with the Tincaps in 2017 as he hit 21 home runs in low-A ball and knowing he’d be a big leaguer someday. That day is nearly here, and along with Machado, the left side of the Padres infield seems like it will be set for a long time.

The second-ranked prospect in the system is Mackenzie Gore, a left-handed starter who spent all of 2018 with the Tincaps. The 20-year-old has at least another season before he’ll be a Padre, but his accuracy and control make him the top pitching prospect for San Diego.

So what about the current big league roster?

Well, the pitching staff is less than stellar. Joey Lucchesi was arguably the best pitcher for the Padres last season, and he went 8-9 with a 4.08 ERA. Clayton Richard and Tyson Ross were probably the next best pitchers in 2018, but those two are now with Toronto and Detroit, respectively. Luis Perdomo should be the #2 starter, but he struggled mightily last season, going 1-6 with a 7.05 ERA.

On the other side of things, the Padres have more young outfielders than they have positions for them to play. There are five guys age 27 or younger that could (and probably should) make the roster: Hunter Renfroe, Franchy Cordero, Travis Jankowski, Franmil Reyes, and Manuel Margot. Renfroe, who has hit 26 home runs in each of the last two seasons, should have a starting spot on Opening Day, as well as Franmil Reyes, who hit 16 home runs in just 87 games last season. Both guys are listed as right fielders, but it shouldn’t be a problem for Reyes to switch to left. I think those two give the Padres the best chance to win now.

As for center field, time will tell. That list doesn’t include Wil Myers, who is 28 years old this season. Myers split time between the outfield and third base last year, as well as two games at first base. However, Eric Hosmer is likely to play the most at first base, and with Machado at third, Myers will have to fight for some time in the outfield. If healthy, he’s easily the third outfield starter, but Myers battled injuries last year and played in just 83 games.

Machado should be interesting enough to watch, but much like the Blue Jays and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., keep an eye on the Padres when Fernando Tatis Jr. makes his debut this season.

San Francisco Giants

Projected record: 70-92

Giants manager Bruce Bochy has announced that the 2019 season will be his last | Photo by: Steven Fromtling

Can the Giants make one more magical run to the World Series and send Bruce Bochy, a three-time champion, out on top?

No.

The San Francisco Giants, who won three World Series titles from 2010-2014, have a lot of the same pieces from those rosters on the squad today.

The problem is that a lot of those guys are past their primes. Here’s a list of the main contributors on offense, with their age as of Opening Day: Buster Posey (32), Evan Longoria (33), Brandon Crawford (32), Pablo Sandoval (32), Brandon Belt (30), Joe Panik (28). All six of those guys are good baseball players, and I think Posey and Longoria are future Hall of Famers. But when the core of your offense has an average age of 31, that’s a problem in baseball.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying 30 is ancient. I’m coming up on it myself. But there’s no question that baseball, along with most other sports, is a young man’s game, and the Giants aren’t getting any younger.

Their top three starting pitchers – Madison Bumgarner (29), Jeff Samardzija (34), and Johnny Cueto (33) – aren’t the youngest guys on the team either. (Though to be honest, finding out just now that Bumgarner is only 29 was a bit surprising. I feel like he’s been around for 15 years.) The Giants signed Drew Pomeranz from the World Series champion Boston Red Sox this offseason, but he’s 30 as well.

The Giants could easily get good production out of all of those players I listed above, but it remains to be seen whether or not they can produce at a high level for 162 games. Historically, it seems like a good number of players begin to break down around 30-32 years old and deal with injuries more frequently, so the Giants are a prime candidate to have a lot of guys spend time on the Injured List this season.

While they’d love to send Bochy (another future Hall of Famer) out on top, it just isn’t going to happen. The only real shot they had at a winning season just signed with the Phillies for $330 million.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Projected record: 65-97

Zack’s Greinke’s contract situation in one word: yikes. | Photo by: J Nash Boulden

Whereas the Giants kept their key group of players together, trying to make one last run at a title, the Diamondbacks have fully gone into rebuild mode. Trading Paul Goldschmidt to the St. Louis Cardinals and letting A.J. Pollock go in free agency were just about the final shoes to drop for Arizona in this process.

It’s hard to say what the offense will look like this season, which should be the bulk of their struggles. Jake Lamb and David Peralta, though good, aren’t exactly the types that you build a team around. If they get off to good starts in 2019, they could be traded for more prospects by the end of July.

Speaking of prospects, the Diamondbacks’ farm system currently ranks in the middle of the pack, though they do have some players ready to be called up to the show. One of them, Carson Kelly, came over from St. Louis in the Goldschmidt trade. Kelly couldn’t break into the Cardinals lineup behind Yadier Molina, one of the best catchers in the game, but he’s been consistent in Triple-A for Memphis. Though Alex Avila is likely to start behind the plate on Opening Day, don’t be surprised if Kelly usurps that role by midseason.

The Diamondbacks signed Wilmer Flores to a one-year deal this offseason. The 27-year-old, who is a lifetime .262 hitter, should fill in at second base at the beginning of the year, but could move to first if Jake Lamb is traded. With a one-year deal, though, Flores could end up being dealt himself.

The rotation is where the Diamondbacks have the most trade bait. While Luke Weaver was also a part of the Goldschmidt trade, the top three arms on the depth chart are likely to be traded (or at least, attempted to be traded) this season.

Zack Greinke enters his fourth season with the D-backs. He went 15-11 last year with a 3.21 ERA, but the biggest problem for Arizona is that he’s owed $105 million over the next three years. That’s A LOT of money to pay a 35-year-old pitcher, even one who has been one of the best in baseball. Greinke is owed $35 million this season, and it seems like if the Diamondbacks want to give him up to the right buyer for good prospects, they might have to eat some of that salary along the way.

Zack Godley (15-11, 4.74 ERA) and Robbie Ray (6-2, 3.93) are also among the trade bait in Arizona. For any contenders looking to add another starting arm to the rotation, you can do a lot worse than Godley and Ray. Ray should be the first to go, since he’s a free agent after this season. Godley could become eligible for arbitration by the end of the year, and he’s currently only¬†making $507K, so Arizona may try to hang on to him.

Since the World Series title in 2001, the Diamondbacks have only made it past the Divisional Round once – in 2007 – and have only made the playoffs four times. They won’t add to those numbers this year, but much like the Padres, they’re filling up the pipeline with talent to compete in the coming years, though they are a bit behind San Diego.

Don’t bet on Arizona to win anything this year, and I wouldn’t buy a jersey of any current player this season. Wait until the chips fall, save your money, and cash in in a couple of seasons. Sorry, Diamondbacks fans, but 2019 is likely to be a long season for you.

AL East Preview

A two-team race…for the World Series crown?

By: Jesse

Any preview of the American League East should start with the defending champions, so let’s start there:

The Boston Red Sox will NOT repeat in 2019.

If you ask any baseball fan to pick the one team since 2000 that they think has been the best franchise overall, I’d be willing to bet that most people would pick Boston. You might get a few Yankees in there, a few Cardinals, and probably some Giants too. But since 2004 (moving up the timeline a little), Boston has four World Series titles – ’04, 2007, 2013, and 2018.

And they will not be adding another banner this season.

It seems odd that a team that brought back essentially every piece from a championship winning season wouldn’t be the favorites to win another World Series, but Vegas Insider has the Red Sox at 7 to 1, tied with the Houston Astros, and behind?

Division (and eternal) rival, the New York Yankees.

The Yankees come in at 6 to 1 to win the 2019 World Series, and while other sites have those three teams tied, the Yankees are the reason that Boston won’t even win the division this year, let alone the championship.

The rest of the division? Better than last year, not good enough. Let’s get to it.

New York Yankees

Projected record: 101-61

Aaron Judge during a game against Baltimore last season | Photo by: Keith Allison

Even without signing Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, the New York Yankees are the favorites to win the American League East in 2019.

The Yankees won 100 games last season and still finished eight games behind the Boston Red Sox, which shows how unbelievable Boston’s season was. It’s also incredible when you consider that Aaron Judge played in only 112 games last season, as he was limited by injury.

If the Yankees can keep Judge and Stanton healthy, Aaron Boone’s squad has a chance to win 100 games again this year. But this team is much deeper than just those two big bats.

The Yankees still have Gary Sanchez behind the plate. Sanchez struggled last year, hitting just .186 in 89 games, but slugged 33 home runs in 2017, and is expected to return to those numbers. He was criticized heavily last year for his lack of hustle and/or effort on many occasions, but missed significant time with a groin injury that may (or may not) have had something to do with it.

The Yankees also acquired DJ LeMahieu in the offseason. LeMahieu hit .276 last season for the Rockies, but .310 in 2017 and an astounding .348 in 2016. LeMahieu is seen as one of the most fundamentally sound hitters in baseball, and adding him to the roster only helps New York’s chances.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Gleyber Torres, the former super prospect who will be entering his first full season with the club. Torres, the former Cubs farmhand, hit .271 in 123 games last season, smacking 24 home runs and driving in 77 runs. Just another name that makes me sad realizing he’s no longer in the Cubs organization.

While CC Sabathia has announced that the 2019 season will be his last, he’ll still be a large part of the Yankees pitching staff. It seems likely that James Paxton will head the rotation after being traded by the Mariners in the offseason. Along with Sabathia and Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ, and Luis Severino round out one of the best pitching staffs in baseball, and that doesn’t even touch the bullpen.

With names like Adam Ottovino, Aroldis Chapman, and Zack Britton, the Yankees likely have the top bullpen in baseball as well. Dellin Betances and Tommy Kahnle don’t want you to forget about them, either.

All in all, I’d be shocked if the Yankees don’t win at least 100 games and take the top spot in the AL East.

Boston Red Sox

Projected record: 95-67

The Red Sox celebrate a victory over the Baltimore Orioles in 2018 | Photo by: Keith Allison

Alex Cora’s defending World Series Champions are probably sick of reading pieces like this about how they won’t beat their division rivals this year.

Well, Red Sox players reading this, look away. This is another one of those.

For what it’s worth, I think the Red Sox are still going to be an excellent baseball team this season. They’ll make the playoffs and have a fighting chance to defend their crown as long as they stay healthy.

But 108 wins again? Not happening.

The Red Sox didn’t sign any big names this offseason, and for good reason: they already top the Majors in the payroll department, and bringing in any big contracts would push them further over the MLB’s “luxury tax” threshold. They brought back Nathan Eovaldi, agreeing to a four-year deal with him this offseason, but that’s been it.

Next season, Rick Porcello, Chris Sale, Xander Bogaerts, and Mitch Moreland will be free agents, and the Red Sox will probably owe Mookie Betts some extension money as well. The window might be closing for the next few years, but getting a title in 2018 made it all worth it.

Betts was incredible last year, hitting .346 and 32 home runs en route to winning the American League Most Valuable Player Award. He was also an All-Star and won both Silver Slugger and Gold Glove Awards as well. The Red Sox hope Betts will be able to put up similar numbers this season, and I don’t think that’s out of the question. Betts aiming for another .330+ and 30+ home run season could just be the new normal in Boston.

J.D. Martinez was also outstanding in 2018, hitting .330 while mashing 43 home runs and driving in 130 runs. Another season like that isn’t out of the question for Martinez, either. The other questions on offense will revolve around whether or not the Red Sox can get the production they need out of Moreland, Bogaerts, and Andrew Benintendi.

The Red Sox have more than enough talent on offense to repeat, and the starting pitching will still likely be great, but the bullpen could be what drags them down. Joe Kelly and Craig Kimbrel are gone, and they were arguably the two best arms in the Boston bullpen. Kelly signed with the Dodgers, and while Kimbrel is still a free agent, a return to Boston seems unlikely.

It could easily boil down to a playoff series between Boston and New York, but I think the Yankees will get the edge in the division and earn the home field advantage in that hypothetical series matchup.

Tampa Bay Rays

Projected record: 87-75

Tampa Bay’s Kevin Kiermaier looks on during a game against the Yankees in 2016 | Photo by: Arturo Pardavila III

It’s only fitting here at Midwest Sports Pulse (based out of Fort Wayne) that Kevin Kiermaier would get the photo section above. The Bishop Luers graduate, who made his debut on the last day of the season in 2013, is entering his fifth “full” season with the Rays, and his hope is to stay healthy in 2019. After two straight injury-shortened seasons, Kiermaier is aiming to be the face of consistency on offense and acquire his third Gold Glove Award.

The Rays lost out on the Nelson Cruz sweepstakes this offseason, but they managed to sign Avisail Garcia to likely fill the designated hitter role. Garcia played in only 93 games last year with the White Sox, but hit .330 in 2017. If Tampa gets a healthy Garcia (who’s 27 entering this season), they can expect a better batting average than Nelson Cruz and a good chunk of the home run production.

Perhaps the most interesting piece on offense for the Rays this year will be Tommy Pham. MLB Network has Pham ranked as the 45th best player in the Majors right now. After he was traded from St. Louis at the deadline last season, Pham went on to hit .343 in 39 games with Tampa and posted a .448 on-base percentage. Pham, who will be 31 on Opening Day, has also struggled with injuries in his career. If he can stay healthy and provide solid play in a corner outfield spot, he could be another huge boost to this offense over the course of 162 games.

Elsewhere, Blake Snell is undoubtedly the number one starter in the rotation for Tampa this season. Tyler Glasnow, who was acquired at the trade deadline from Pittsburgh last season, will likely be a starter despite some early struggles last year. Charlie Morton signed a two-year deal with the Rays this year after an All-Star appearance in 2018. Ryan Yarbrough will give Tampa another young arm to rely on for years to come.

Last season, the pitching situation was…interesting. The Rays, and manager Kevin Cash, decided late last year to use relievers for an inning or two to start the game before turning the ball over to the regular “starters.” It’s hard to knock the strategy, given that the Rays went 36-19 over the last two months of the season and won 90 games overall. Cash has already announced that the Rays will go with three starters to open the season and use this same strategy.

Ultimately, this Rays team is incredibly talented. They could end up winning around 90 games like last year, but in a division with two teams that are projected to win 95+ games, it won’t be quite good enough. It’ll be interesting to see where Tampa is in mid-July and whether they decide to be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline. The core is good, but the Yankees and Red Sox are liable to battle it out for the next few years (if Boston can figure out free agency), and the Rays could try and load up on prospects who will be ready for the big leagues a few years down the road. Tampa is in good position to win a division crown (or two) in the next 6-8 years, but 2019 won’t be one of them.

Toronto Blue Jays

Projected record: 76-86

Number one prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. bats as a member of the Lansing Lugnuts in 2017…when will he arrive? | Photo by: Joel Dinda

The Toronto Blue Jays are now three years removed from the franchise’s last playoff appearance. They haven’t sniffed a World Series since 1993, though that one was quite memorable (“Touch ’em all, Joe!”). There are still a number of players on the roster from the last few playoff appearances, but they aren’t likely to be there next time around, as the Blue Jays are fully in the middle of a rebuild.

The perfect season for this particular Toronto team involves those players getting off to hot starts and being dealt at the trade deadline for the next round of prospects. Seriously.

With all due respect to these players, the names Randall Grichuk, Aaron Sanchez, Kevin Pillar, Marcus Stroman, Kendrys Morales, and Justin Smoak don’t strike much fear into the hearts of baseball fans, and even less into the hearts of people who don’t regularly follow baseball. Smoak and Morales will be free agents at year’s end. The other four are free agents after next season. The best thing Toronto can do is trade away all of those guys for the next batch of playoff-bound Blue Jays.

That next batch will undoubtedly be led by Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the number one prospect in Major League Baseball.

Guerrero Jr. is unlikely to be on the Opening Day roster, but his arrival should come shortly after that. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the son of Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero (who knew?), can absolutely mash baseballs, just like his daddy. I’m no Blue Jays fan, but I am salivating at the thought of another player named Vladimir Guerrero in the big leagues. His dad was one of my all-time favorite players, and I attribute my desire to swing at high pitches to watching him rake every pitch in every location during my formative years.

The offense is really nothing to fear without Guerrero Jr. in the lineup, and the pitching staff is pretty mediocre as well. Stroman will likely be the top target of contenders come the trade deadline, but Sanchez and Ken Giles could be solid enough to warrant some interest. Sanchez is only 26, so it is plausible that the Blue Jays try to hang on to him, but Giles will be 30 by the time he hits free agency, and there isn’t generally a ton of interest in 30+ year old pitchers (just ask Jake Arrieta, or the aforementioned Craig Kimbrel).

Don’t miss out on watching Guerrero Jr. when you can, but don’t commit this roster to memory.

Baltimore Orioles

Projected record: 58-104

Chris Davis (19) strikes out looking against Toronto in 2017 | Photo by: Keith Allison

Well, it’s going to get a little better this year, Baltimore!

All of that talk about a rebuild in the Toronto section? Yeah, the Orioles are firmly in the middle of their own rebuild.

Balitmore lost 115(!) games last season, which is the 15th worst record (by winning percentage) in baseball since the modern era, which started in 1900. Because I’m sure you’re curious, the worst was the 1916 Philadelphia Athletics, who finished 36-117. (Fun facts: the most losses in a season belong to the 1962 New York Mets, who went 40-120. Before the “modern era” started in 1900, the Cleveland Spiders lost 134 games while winning only 20 in the 1899 season. Isn’t baseball fun? Imagine being on that team and in that locker room.)

The Orioles hired a new manager in Brandon Hyde, and there’s a fair amount to be amped for in the future. Dealing Manny Machado last year brought in a wealth of new prospects, none more exciting than Yusniel Diaz. Diaz played all of last year in Double-A with the Dodgers and Orioles affiliates and is easily the Orioles new top prospect.

The Orioles also have three pitchers in the farm system that are going to play major roles in the years to come in DL Hall, Grayson Rodriguez, and Dean Kremer. Hall and Rodriguez were both first-round draft picks, while Kremer was another part of the Machado trade. Kremer struck out 180 batters last year in High-A and Double-A.

As far as the roster at the big league level, there isn’t much to make opposing pitchers shiver with fear. Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo would have struck fear in the hearts of pitchers from 2013-16, but both are now past their prime. Trumbo hit 47 home runs in 2016, but only played in 90 games last year as he dealt with injuries. Davis had an abysmal 2018, hitting just .168 in 128 games. The same Chris Davis hit 53 home runs in 2013, and 47 in 2015. The power is there for both of these guys, but it isn’t likely to show itself at those levels again.

Jonathan Villar hit .260 last season with the Brewers and Orioles, and he could provide some consistency at the top of the lineup. Trey Mancini has been another consistent bat, hitting 24 home runs in each of the last two seasons.

The Orioles have a number of players without a ton of experience at the major league level to keep an eye on this year, including Cedric Mullins, DJ Stewart, and Rio Ruiz. Joey Rickard is a name who will likely be with the club for the length of the season, and Renato Nunez could provide some offense as well. Don’t be surprised, however, if the Orioles lead the MLB in strikeouts as some of these younger players get adjusted to being every day players in the majors.

Andrew Cashner, Dylan Bundy, and Alex Cobb will likely head the rotation this year. All three pitched more than 150 innings last season, but all three also had ERAs above 4.90. David Hess split time between Baltimore and the Norfolk Tides (AAA) last season. He went 3-10 when with the Orioles, but kept his ERA under that 4.90 number (barely – 4.88). He and newcomer Nate Karns should round out the rotation, but keep in mind that Karns is coming off two straight injury-shortened seasons.

All in all, the Orioles will not lose 115 games this season, which is better news than last year, I suppose. But don’t be surprised in the slightest if they still drop 100 games in 2019.