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.

Don’t sleep on Marquette

Should the Golden Eagles be your March Madness dark horse pick to win it all?

By: Jesse

Greg Elliott (5) and Markus Howard converse during Marquette’s 90-86 win over Creighton last season | Photo by: Steven Branscombe, USA Today

Coming from the guy who wrote that Duke would be unstoppable exactly four days before Zion Williamson blew through his shoe (and almost his knee) and the Blue Devils were demolished at home by their rivals…hear me out.

The 11th-ranked Marquette Golden Eagles (22-4, 11-2 Big East) should be on your radar when it comes time to fill out your March Madness bracket this year.

All of the hype this year has been about Duke (and rightfully so), but perhaps this is the year where none of the perennial contenders (Duke, UNC, Kentucky, Kansas) actually seal the deal and cut down the nets. Maybe this is the year where the hype and pressure is so high that these teams look right past their 2nd round opponent toward the Sweet 16, Elite 8, and Final Four and trip up, ending the journey just as soon as it started.

Who would be there to pick up that mantle? Marquette would gladly take that, thank you very much.

The Golden Eagles have somehow flown under the radar with a 22-4 record, and I think that’s mostly due to the blue bloods being so good this year. They are currently alone in first place in the Big East, leading Villanova by a half game as of this posting, and the Wildcats seem to be trending the wrong way. Those two will meet in Philadelphia this coming Wednesday, and that game will likely decide the Big East regular season champion.

If you look at Marquette’s schedule, they don’t have any bad losses. The one you might be able to make a case for is the loss against Indiana (13-13) in November, but here’s a counterargument: it was the third game of the season, the Hoosiers started the season 12-2 (before dropping seven straight), and the game was in Bloomington. As a graduate of Indiana, I’m all too familiar with the early season home matchup against a ranked team. The Hoosiers almost always show up and show out for those games, and they beat Marquette handily while holding Markus Howard to 18 points. I don’t count that as a bad loss.

The other three losses? A neutral site loss to the then-second-ranked Kansas Jayhawks in the preseason NIT, and two losses to St. John’s, who currently sit with a 19-8 record overall and in third place in the Big East.

What about good wins? They rebounded from the Kansas loss to beat Louisville in the preseason NIT 3rd-place matchup in overtime. They defeated the then-12th-ranked Kansas State Wildcats in a game in which Markus Howard dropped 45 points. A week later, they beat another team ranked #12: in-state rival Wisconsin. The Golden Eagles dropped 103 points on a very good Buffalo team in December that, you may remember, knocked out Arizona in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last season (and by the way, that was another Markus Howard 45 point game). And, just 13 days ago, they knocked off Villanova by one point at home.

While the Big East may not necessarily be the death trap that it’s been in recent years, Marquette is taking care of business in conference, and that’s what good teams do. CBS Sports has Marquette with the 39th toughest schedule this year, which isn’t great, but isn’t bad, and they also have Marquette’s RPI rank at 14. Essentially what that says is that the Golden Eagles are a good team playing decent competition, and they’re winning the games they should be winning.

Markus Howard (0) dribbles against Georgetown defender James Akinjo (3) during the first half of a game on January 15, 2019 in Washington | Photo: Associated Press

Okay, so what else does Marquette having going for it?

Let’s not forget about National Player of the Year candidate Markus Howard, who has been referenced a few times already. Howard is averaging 25.7 points per game to go along with 4 assists per game. To put that into perspective, he’s currently the 4th-highest scorer in the nation, trailing guys from Chris Clemons of Campbell, who is one of the all-time leading scorers in NCAA history, Antoine Davis of Detroit Mercy, and Justin Wright-Foreman of Hofstra. For further perspective, Marquette great Dwyane Wade (you may have heard of him) averaged a measly 21.5 points per game when he led Marquette to the Final Four in 2003, its first trip there since winning the title in 1977. Howard also has eight 30+ point games this season, including a career-high 53 against Creighton.

So, uh, he’s good. And he very well could carry a Marquette team through the tournament in a Kemba Walker-esque style. But he’s not the only threat the Golden Eagles have.

The Hauser brothers are the next two high scorers. Sam, a junior, is averaging 15.1 points per game and leads the team in rebounding with 6.7 boards per contest. Sam Hauser also dropped a season-high 31 points in a January victory at Georgetown. Joey, a freshman, averages just under 10 points per game, registering at 9.8. He’s shooting 43.8% from beyond the arc, which is just a shade under the team leader – Markus Howard – who is shooting 43.9% from three point land, though we should note that Howard has made more 3-pointers (97) than Joey Hauser has attempted (80). Forwards Sacar Anim (8.2 ppg) and Theo John (6.2 ppg) round out the scoring for the Golden Eagles.

Marquette has a very good chance to win their last five games of the season and enter the Big East tournament as the #1 seed with a 27-4 overall record. From there, anything could happen, as anything is wont to do in college basketball in the month of March.

Marquette also has excellent value in the betting world, if that’s your cup of tea. Oddsshark currently has them at +3500 to win the tournament, so if you’re really feeling good about the Golden Eagles after reading this, go put $10 on them in a futures bet and see if you can’t just walk away with $350 at season’s end. You’ll definitely be rooting harder for the 8,000 student Catholic school if you put a little money on them, I can promise you that.

As I’ve mentioned a few times here, anything can happen in March, and anyone who has followed college basketball for some time understands that. But when the brackets are rolled out on St. Patrick’s Day and Marquette draws a 3 or 4 seed in a region with a team like Duke, or Kentucky, or Tennessee, or Gonzaga…don’t overlook the damage that Markus Howard and the Golden Eagles can do. If you ignore them, they might just be the team this year that makes you crumple up the bracket and toss it in the trash (probably missing your first shot and having to embarrassingly pick it up off the ground too, let’s be honest).

Watch out, college basketball fans. You’ve been warned.

AL Central Preview

In a division that has recently been dominated by Cleveland, watch out for a new champion

By: Jesse

The 2018 American League Central Division was one of the worst divisions in baseball history. Cleveland won the crown (their 3rd straight) by 13 games while winning only 91 themselves, and they were the only team to finish above .500. Two teams – the Chicago White Sox and Kansas City Royals – finished with 100+ losses, and Detroit lost 98.

However, 2019 looks like it is shaping up to be a little different. On paper, Cleveland is still the favorite, and it seems most people are predicting the Indians to win a 4th straight division title, but every other team got better this offseason, and we may just be surprised at season’s end who sits atop the division.

Without further ado, let’s get into Midwest Sports Pulse’s second baseball preview.

Minnesota Twins

Projected record: 88-74

Byron Buxton on Opening Day 2018 – photo by Andy Witchger

For what it’s worth, the Minnesota Twins could just as easily struggle through the season and finish under .500, making this pick look, well, stupid.

That said, there’s been a lot of hype around the Twins this offseason, and while much of their roster remains unproven, they just might have enough pure talent to sneak past Cleveland and win their first AL Central crown since 2010.

Offensively, the Twins lost Brian Dozier in the middle of 2018 when they traded him to the Dodgers. Dozier went on to sign with the Nationals this offseason. While his numbers dwindled last year, Dozier hit 42 and 34 home runs in 2016 and 2017 respectively, and those are numbers that are not easily replaceable.

Another piece that’s missing in Minnesota for the first time in 15 years is Joe Mauer. Mauer retired at the end of the 2018 season with a career .306 average. He was a six-time All-Star and won the Most Valuable Player award in 2009. While the production may not have been quite as high in 2018, a 15-year vet like Mauer is hard to replace in the lineup and in the clubhouse.

To counter those two, the Twins signed second baseman Jonathan Schoop to a one-year deal worth $7.5 million. Schoop was an All-Star in 2017 with Baltimore, but comes off a year in which he hit .233. Obviously, Minnesota is hoping he’ll be able to revive himself to his 2017 numbers (.293, 32 home runs, 105 RBI).

Another big signing for the Twins this offseason was designated hitter Nelson Cruz. Over the past five seasons (the four most recent with Seattle and 2014 in Baltimore), Cruz has hit 203 home runs, which tops baseball during that span. Cruz, 38, hasn’t seemed to let his age slow him down, and if he stays healthy, he’s likely to have another season around that 35-40 home runs mark.

The Twins have a lot of young, talented guys on their roster, including Byron Buxton, Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco, and Miguel Sano. If those five can stay healthy, be productive at the plate, and play solid defense all season, the Twins will have a shot at winning 90+ games.

The pitching staff leaves a little to be desired, but they return their top three starters from last year in Jose Berrios (12-11, 3.84 ERA), Kyle Gibson (10-13, 3.62 ERA), and Jake Odorizzi (7-10, 4.49 ERA). The pitching staff also includes Michael Pineda, who signed in December of 2017 but missed all of last year while recovering from Tommy John surgery and a torn meniscus in his right knee. While the Twins have not set a date for Pineda’s return, he started pitching live batting practice this week, and is hoping to be back sooner rather than later.

All in all, if the Twins can stay healthy and keep their growing pains to a minimum, they just might surprise the Indians and keep Cleveland out of the playoffs for the first time since 2015.

Cleveland Indians

Projected record: 85-77

Francisco Lindor puts a ball into play against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim – photo by Erik Drost

In essentially the same thing I said about the Twins above, the Indians could very easily prove me wrong, skate through the 2019 season, and win the AL Central for a 4th straight year. They have the talent to do just that, and by season’s end, their win total could easily be in the mid-90s.

The problem is, Cleveland lost a lot of offense from 2018 to now, and they didn’t do much to replace it this offseason. With Michael Brantley and Edwin Encarnacion both off to the American League West, those two alone combined for 49 home runs and 183 RBI last year. When you factor in that Yonder Alonso and Yan Gomes both left as well, those numbers jump up to 88 home runs and 314 RBI. That’s a lot of production to lose in one offseason.

To be fair, Cleveland did acquire Jake Bauers from Tampa Bay in the offseason. Bauers, 23, was one of the Rays top prospects, and came to Cleveland in a three-team trade that also included Carlos Santana coming from Seattle. Santana (not to be confused with the musician) was traded twice in the offseason just 10 days apart. He hit 24 home runs and drove in 86 runs with Philadelphia last season.

The Cleveland pitching staff is still one of the best in baseball, boasting Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, and Mike Clevinger. They lost Josh Tomlin to Milwaukee in free agency, but managed to add Tyler Clippard to the bullpen. Brad Hand returns as the likely closer, having saved 32 of 39 chances in his time with both the Padres and Indians in 2018.

Cleveland’s pitching is what will most likely get them back to the promised land (if they are able to stay healthy) and if the offense outperforms its projections. It helps having an MVP-caliber player like Francisco Lindor in your lineup, but he’s also likely to miss the beginning of the season while dealing with a moderate strain of his right calf. His likely return is mid-April, given that everything goes well.

Don’t sleep on the Indians in 2019, but don’t be surprised if they underperform and miss the playoffs either.

Chicago White Sox

Projected record: 80-82

Yeah, probably not.

I mean, come on.

How else would this piece start out?

As of yesterday (February 20th), Bob Nightengale of the USA Today has reported that the White Sox are “out” on the Bryce Harper sweepstakes. It seems increasingly likely that Harper will be in Philadelphia next season, but it was fun for White Sox fans to get their hopes up about Harper, and Manny Machado, who just signed with the Padres for $300 million.

But…if somehow the Sox got back in on Harper and signed him, they immediately become AL Central favorites. Harper would boost them to the top without any doubt.

As it stands now, Chicago is one piece away from really competing. I think by next season, they’ll have that one piece, whether it comes from free agency next year or the farm system.

The core of the White Sox is much like the Twins – young, talented, and ready to prove themselves. Yoan Moncada is one of those young talents, but he desperately needs to cut back on strikeouts this year, having K’d a whopping 217 times in 2018.

Jose Abreu figures to be the veteran presence for the White Sox this season. The 32-year-old hit 22 home runs last season, which is actually his lowest total since joining the White Sox in 2014. The Sox also added the aforementioned Yonder Alonso from Cleveland this offseason, who hit 23 home runs for the Indians last year.

Tim Anderson probably benefits the most from Manny Machado signing with the Padres, as he figured to lose most (or all) of his playing time in Chicago. Another name to watch is Leury Garcia, who will serve as the utility guy for the White Sox.

The addition of Jon Jay will help the White Sox initially, as he figures to be the starter in left field. But the real question will be how long Jay holds on to that spot, with super prospect Eloy Jimenez waiting in the wings. (For the record, I’m still bummed the Cubs included him in the Quintana trade.)

Jimenez is in a similar position as Kris Bryant was in 2015: if he doesn’t start the season with Chicago, the White Sox will have an extra year of control over his contract. He’s unlikely to be on the Opening Day roster, but it would be shocking if he isn’t with the team by the end of April. Between Double-A and Triple-A stints last year, Jimenez hit .337 and smashed 22 home runs with 75 runs batted in. He very much figures to be the superstar of the future for Chicago.

Carlos Rodon and Ivan Nova are the veterans of the pitching staff, but the rest of the hurlers are fairly young. Again, like Jimenez, the White Sox farm system is loaded with top-notch talent, and it won’t be long until we see the likes of Dylan Cease (also part of the Quintana trade) and Michael Kopech in the rotation.

The White Sox could surprise everyone and win the Central this year, but they’re more suited to compete starting in 2020 and running for quite a few years after that.

Kansas City Royals

Projected record: 64-98

Photo by Keith Allison

If you look at Kansas City’s roster, you’ll find a few familiar names from a team that won the 2015 World Series (people seem to forget that). Alex Gordon is still there, perennial All-Star Salvador Perez is still behind the plate, and Danny Duffy still controls one of the top spots in the rotation.

And…that’s about it.

The Royals have followed the path of a lot of recent champions, going all in for a period of 2-3 years, winning a title, and pretty much immediately falling apart. Since 2015, they’ve traded away or lost to free agency most of that World Series core. Unfortunately for Kansas City, their farm system still needs improvement.

A year ago, some considered them to have the worst farm system in baseball. For 2019, Bleacher Report gives them the #24 spot, with three Top 100 prospects in the system. Two of those top three – Khalil Lee and MJ Melendez – are still a few years away from making “the Show” as every day players. Arguably their top prospect, Brady Singer, was just drafted 18th overall in the 2018 MLB Draft, so he’s still a ways away from making an impact in the rotation as well.

The Royals signed speedy outfielder Billy Hamilton to a one-year deal this offseason. Hamilton, a career .245 hitter, is best known for his ability to steal bases, having stolen between 56 and 59 bases each year from 2014 to 2017. Last season, Hamilton managed to swipe 34 bases in his last year with the Reds.

Former Cub Jorge Soler could add some power to the lineup, if he’s able to stay healthy. Soler struggled at the plate in 2017 before rebounding in 2018, though he still split some time between Kansas City and Omaha.

The pitching staff could use some improvement, with Duffy and Ian Kennedy heading up the rotation. The Royals do return all five starters from last season, but none of them finished the year with an ERA under 4.26. Brad Keller started 20 games and appeared in another 21 out of the bullpen, and he was arguably the Royals best pitcher, going 9-6 with a 3.08 ERA.

The best offseason additions for the Royals were both pitchers. Kansas City re-signed Kyle Zimmer in January, and Zimmer is looking to come back from multiple injuries and make an impact. The other signing was closer Brad Boxberger, who joined the Royals at the beginning of February. Boxberger had 32 saves last season for the Arizona Diamondbacks, but had his career high in 2015 with Tampa Bay, when he saved 41 games.

The Royals are still a few years away from competing for a playoff spot again, but they could lose fewer than 100 games this year, so…progress!

Detroit Tigers

Projected record: 61-101

Miguel Cabrera during a game in April 2018. Photo by Keith Allison

It’s hard to think things could get worse for a team that lost 98 games last season, but the Detroit Tigers may just be in that position. This is another team with a lot of young talent, but it’s mostly unproven, and Detroit didn’t do much to offset that issue this offseason, even with the recent signing of Josh Harrison.

Miguel Cabrera will still be the most well-known name in the Tigers lineup, and he’s coming off of an injury-shortened season. Cabrera ruptured his left biceps tendon swinging last year and had surgery, so it remains to be seen how effective he’ll be at the plate. A career .316 hitter with 465 home runs isn’t anything to slouch at, but time will tell.

Other offensive bright spots may include Harrison, Nick Castellanos, new signee Jordy Mercer, and potentially Jeimer Candelario. Castellanos hit .298 with the Tigers last year, but hitting was one of the major struggles for Detroit last season. With a young roster, they’re likely to see the same struggles, but getting some of those guys the every day experience will be invaluable for the future. Watch for the likes of Grayson Greiner, JaCoby Jones, and Mikie Mahtook to make an impact in the years to come.

The pitching staff for Detroit has potential to be better than last season. Michael Fulmer, Jordan Zimmermann, and Matt Boyd return, while the Tigers signed Tyson Ross and Matt Moore this offseason. None of Detroit’s starters finished with more wins than losses last year, and Ross had the best ERA of any of the likely starters this year, though it was still 4.15.

The future is bright in Detroit, with two top 50 prospects that may arrive sooner rather than later. Last year’s number one overall pick, right-handed pitcher Casey Mize, has an outside shot to see the Majors before the season’s end, though he’s a safer bet to be called up in 2020. Matt Manning, another right-handed pitcher, won’t be far behind.

But until that point, and until the Tigers develop their offense a little more, expect more heartache at Comerica Park this year.

AL West Preview

A preseason look at a two team race

By: Jesse

Today, we’ll kick off Midwest Sports Pulse’s MLB season preview with the American League West division. It’s tough to say that this division is at all competitive; in fact, it’s hard to say that any team has a chance outside of Houston. The Astros are built solidly from top to bottom, but their window to win may be closing sooner rather than later.

The only AL West team that might give them some fits this year is the Oakland Athletics. We’ll get into that more in a bit.

Outside of the Astros and A’s, this division isn’t going to produce much. One team is in a clear rebuild while the other two are still missing a few key pieces to be able to compete. Below, we’ll work through perhaps the weakest division from top to bottom in baseball, complete with record predictions and what to expect.

Houston Astros

Projected record: 102-60

ST. PETERSBURG, FL – AUGUST 31: Jose Altuve #27 of the Houston Astros celebrate with teammate Alex Bregman #2 after both scoring off of a two-run single by Derek Fisher during the eighth inning of a game on August 31, 2017 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)

If you’re a baseball fan like me, watching the Astros evolve over the last eight years has been incredible. The Astros won 56, 55, and 51 games from 2011-2013, which loaded them up with high draft picks. They promptly used those to rebuild and fortify their roster with the likes of Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, and George Springer.

Coming off of two straight AL West crowns, I fully expect the Astros to threepeat. I thought at the end of last season that they might knock off the Red Sox in the ALCS and win their second straight World Series title, but that didn’t quite pan out. I see no reason why they won’t be back in the playoffs as division champs again this year.

This offseason, the Astros signed outfielder Michael Brantley, which gives them more depth beyond the dirt. The biggest question that Houston faces in the immediate future is setting their rotation. The Astros have a few big names with Justin Verlander and Gerritt Cole already. It isn’t out of the question that they might re-sign 2015 Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel, but beyond that, the Astros may be looking for a few more starters. Houston signed Wade Miley at the beginning of February, but if Keuchel leaves, that’s a big hole to fill.

After this season, the Astros face a whole host of new problems. Both Verlander and Cole become free agents after the 2019 season. George Springer and Josh Reddick join the free agency pool after 2020, and young superstars Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman will shortly be eating into the payroll with what they earn in arbitration.

But for now, the AL West crown runs through Houston.

Oakland Athletics

Projected record: 93-69

Photo by: Ben Margot/Associated Press

The Oakland Athletics are the only team that might give Houston a run for their money this season, but I think they are one or two pieces away from a division championship. To be fair to the A’s, if Houston was still in the NL Central instead of the AL West, they wouldn’t be a piece or two away from a division crown, but the Astros are just that good.

Oakland won 97 games last season under Bob Melvin and clinched a Wild Card spot in the American League playoffs before losing that game to the New York Yankees. This team has a lot of the same key components as last year and a few interesting additions that will make them competitive in 2019.

Khris Davis is certainly the biggest factor in the offense, having hit 40+ home runs in each of the last three seasons (including a career-high 48 last year). The A’s also brought in Jurickson Profar from a division rival (Texas), and they hope that he’ll finally become the cornerstone-type player that has always been expected. (For the record, when Profar was first brought up in 2012, I remembered thinking, “Man, that guy was a stud in the Little League World Series.” Those Curacao teams were STACKED.)

Another key addition for the A’s was Marco Estrada, who will help the starting rotation. Estrada was an All-Star in Toronto in 2016, though he struggled last season. He’s also 35, but the A’s are hoping he’ll provide some stability to their pitching staff and help them get over the hump this year.

The player to watch this year for Oakland is, without a doubt, Matt Chapman. Since Josh Donaldson left four years ago, the A’s haven’t really had an MVP-caliber player on their roster. Chapman could change that, and he’s a dark horse candidate for MVP if he’s able to produce at the levels expected of him. Watch out for Chapman, but don’t fear the A’s too much this year.

Seattle Mariners

Projected record: 79-83

These next two teams could really be in either order, but I think the Mariners will just edge out the Angels in 2019.

One of the biggest questions Seattle has to answer is, “How much does Félix Hernández have left in the tank?”

The 32-year-old ace struggled last year, but has obviously been mostly phenomenal since 2010, and all of that success has come with Seattle. It’s hard to ask for much more, but the Mariners haven’t been able to put a lot together around him during his career.

The Mariners have added a few bats to the lineup to try and replace Nelson Cruz, acquiring outfielder Jay Bruce from the Mets in the Robinson Cano trade and adding Edwin Encarnacion through free agency. Bruce has a couple of Silver Slugger Awards along with a few All-Star appearances. Encarnacion has been one of the most consistent sluggers over the last seven seasons with both Toronto and Cleveland, hammering 263 home runs since 2012. Seattle also has Kyle Seager in that lineup as well, so that trio could be something for opposing pitchers to worry about.

The player to watch this year for Seattle is outfielder Mallex Smith. Admittedly, I am biased in this selection because I watched Smith play for the Fort Wayne Tincaps in 2013 and briefly in 2014, but if he can find all of the tools he needs to be a productive leadoff hitter, he could quickly become a headache for a lot of teams in the American League.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Projected record: 76-86

Photo by: Keith Allison

What do the Angels really have going on besides Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani? This is a team with a couple of the best pure hitters in baseball, but then there is a steep drop off from that point.

The rotation is…not great. I like Tyler Skaggs, and Matt Harvey is a proven starter, but he’ll also be 30 by Opening Day and has already had Tommy John surgery. After those two, who knows what will happen? Trevor Cahill is there as well, but it remains to be seen whether or not he can be effective again as a starter.

Trout has two years left on his deal with the Angels, and after that, I fully expect him to leave LA, or at least the Angels. If I was drafting a team right now and had to pick one player to build around, I would take Trout over Bryce Harper and anyone else in the league. We know (barring injury) that Trout will produce, but the Angels don’t seem to have enough around him to get them anywhere close to the playoffs this year.

Ohtani will be interesting to watch as he enters his second full season in the majors. He hit 22 home runs last year and made a decent effort from the mound, but also underwent Tommy John surgery in November. He likely won’t pitch again this year, but he and the Angels are still hopeful that he might be able to go by Opening Day.

Another huge question mark is Albert Pujols. Pujols is due $28 million this season, which is a lot to pay someone who hasn’t had very productive seasons the last two years. Pujols hit 23 home runs in 2017 and 19 in 2018 before season-ending surgery on his knee. He’s also 39 years old coming into this year, and is under contract with a full no-trade clause through 2022. Albert Pujols is easily one of the best hitters of this generation, and one of the greatest sluggers of all-time, but that’s a lot of money to pay someone who is nearing 40 and not producing the numbers you’d want for $28 million.

The Angels have a lot of talent, but the lack of pitching hurts them greatly. Keep an eye on Justin Bour, the former Marlins and Phillies first baseman, to make an impact for the Angels on offense this year.

Texas Rangers

Projected record: 62-100

Photo by: Keith Allison

The Texas Rangers…yikes. Where to begin?

This is just a bad team. Besides Joey Gallo, the Rangers don’t have a lot going on. Elvis Andrus has been consistent for the last 10 years, and the Asdrubal Cabrera signing should help the offense a little, but Texas is very obviously in the middle of a rebuild.

The starting pitching doesn’t look too bad on paper, but it’s tough to argue that these pitchers haven’t already peaked. Lance Lynn, Drew Smyly, Shelby Miller, and Edinson Volquez sounds much more menacing in 2013 than in 2019, and any or all of those pitchers could be dealt before the end of July if they are having decent seasons.

There isn’t much more to write about Texas. Keep an eye on Gallo, obviously, but Nomar Mazara might be a name on your radar by the end of the season. He’s hit 20 home runs in each of the last three seasons and has a career .258 batting average. While that alone isn’t great, he’s proven to be consistent and can potentially give the Rangers a boost this season and in the future, given that he’s only 23 years old.

Next up: the AL Central. Stay tuned for it later this week.