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.

Just give Duke the title already

Why even bother with the NCAA Tournament?

By: Jesse

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Before we start: I reserve the right to write about any team in college basketball, and basketball in general, because…well, I live in Indiana, and basketball is king.

Is anyone surprised by what we’ve seen so far this season? I could have written this over a year ago when Zion committed to Duke and gave them four of the top 12 recruits.

Now, to be fair, I FULLY want the NCAA Tournament to still be played. March Madness is my absolute favorite sporting event, and I treat those first four days of the tournament like the biggest holiday of the year.

That said, this team has been nothing short of special. The 23-point comeback at Louisville this week was just ridiculous. I looked at the score early in the second half, saw Duke was down by 16 at that point, and decided not to turn it on. Instead, I went to bed.

What happened?

Cam Reddish celebrates after the 23-point comeback victory at Louisville (Getty)

You can imagine my surprise.

As much as I hate to write this, the 2015 Kentucky squad was special. That roster was just unreal. But even though they started the season 38-0 (how’d that season end, by the way?), I think this Duke team has more pure talent than that UK squad, and it’s hard to argue that Duke doesn’t have the best coach in college basketball.

Yeah…that guy. By the way, it’s “Krzyzewski” (The News & Observer)

As an opposing coach, how do you game plan for Duke? Of course you have to focus on Zion Williamson, but then what about RJ Barrett, the #1 rated recruit in that class? Sure, focus on RJ. But what about Cam Reddish, the #3 recruit? Not to mention, Tre Jones, the starting point guard, was the 12th-ranked recruit.

It’s almost not fair.

I went to Indiana University for my formal education, and I love the Hoosiers. I wish I could write this story about them, and how incredible they’ve been…but that’s just not reality.

In reality, I would be absolutely shocked if Duke does not win the 2019 NCAA title. Of course, writing this in mid-February is a dangerous game to play. You could all come right back here in a month if Duke loses and shove it in my face. I can take that.

There are some excellent teams in the NCAA this year, including Virginia, Tennessee, Gonzaga, and Kentucky, just to name a few. I just don’t think I would bet against Duke in any of those matchups. They’ve already beaten Virginia twice, and they demolished Kentucky on the season’s opening night. One of Duke’s two losses came to Gonzaga in Maui, so there’s an argument to be made there, but if those two teams were to meet again, I’m just not positive that the Zags could pull it off twice in a year.

But that’s what makes March Madness so special. Anything can happen…literally anything. We used to say anything* could happen (the exception being a 16 seed upsetting a 1 seed), but UMBC erased that asterisk last year.

I would be devastated if Duke lost to a 16 seed in the opening round (assuming they finish the season strong and get a #1 seed), but I’ll never rule it out. Not anymore. I don’t trust anything in March except for the team I draw out of a hat during a school-sanctioned competition.

But let’s be real. It certainly seems that at the end of the year, the only thing we’ll see is more of this.

Duke players and Krzyzewski celebrate the 2015 National Championship after defeating Wisconsin (Getty)

A New Venture

Hey. Thanks for joining me on this new journey.

My goal with Midwest Sports Pulse is to provide sporting news and commentary to you, my valued reader, about the teams you care most about. I intend to cover as much as I possibly can, but starting out, it’s a one man show.

I am always open to suggestions on what or who to write about, what teams I should incorporate here, and what you want to see. Leave a comment or shoot me an email – midwestsportspulse@gmail.com (for now).

Thanks again. Here’s to us.

JM