Thank You, Joe Maddon

Thoughts from a die-hard Cubs fan

By: Kody Smith

CHICAGO, IL – NOVEMBER 04: Manager Joe Maddon of the Chicago Cubs holds the World Series trophy during the Chicago Cubs victory celebration in Grant Park on November 4, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The Cubs won their first World Series championship in 108 years after defeating the Cleveland Indians 8-7 in Game 7. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

The Chicago Cubs and Joe Maddon have decided to mutually part ways following five seasons with the unorthodox manager.  Needless to say, the last five years were nothing short of magical.

First and foremost, I will admit that Joe Maddon’s managerial decisions at times made me want to rip the hair out of my scalp. The bullpen utilization, the strange lineup combinations, and the lack of “small ball” made me curse Maddon due to the detrimental outcomes of key games over the years. However, I will not relive Maddon’s tenure as the manager of the Cubs in terms of “what could have been” or “should have been.” Instead, let’s take a trip down memory lane, and remember what that man not only did for the franchise, but also for the incredible Chicago Cubs fan base.

From 2004-2014, the Chicago Cubs only made the postseason two times. Under the managerial leadership of one of the all-time greats, Lou Piniella, the Cubs managed to win consecutive National League Central Division titles (2007-2008), which led to two postseason berths. However, the North Siders could not manage a single playoff win, getting swept in the NLDS both years; by the Diamondbacks in 2007 and the Dodgers in 2008. The talent was there, with the likes of Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee, and Aramis Ramirez leading the way, but “The Curse” just seemed to have other plans for the franchise. The team would not see another postseason until 2015, which brings us to Mr. Respect90.

Following a 73-89 campaign in 2014, the front office seemed to have the pieces to build to a successful team. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer were building a promising farm system, with superstar prospects Javier Baez, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Willson Contreras and Kris Bryant hungrily awaiting their chance to shine in the “Big Leagues.” Add those young talents to a roster alongside Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, and a couple of quality bullpen arms, the Cubs were primed to make some noise in 2015. In October of 2014, the managerial services of Joe Maddon became available following his departure from Tampa Bay, ending his nine-season run as the Manager of the Rays, which included a trip to the 2008 World Series. Fast-forward to November 2014, Epstein and Hoyer found their man, signing Maddon to guide the young, rebuilt squad.

Along with Maddon, the Cubs would add veteran pieces to the team to compliment the potential stars, signing perennial All-Star Jon Lester to a 6-year contract, and adding veteran catchers Miguel Montero and David Ross to call the games from behind the plate. And with the acquisition of Dexter Fowler from Houston, the lineup had a legitimate leadoff hitter, which was a rare commodity for the Cubs. 2015 was not an easy season to debut as the manager of a team in the Central Division, however, with the Cardinals and Pirates coming in with dangerous squads. In fact, the two would conclude the season with the two best records in the National League. Maddon took the challenge on the run, and would flourish in his first year, as the Cubs would finish the campaign with 97 wins, leading to the second NL Wild Card spot and the team’s first postseason appearance since 2008.

As a fan of the Chicago Cubs, how could you forget this postseason? The team would shutout the Pirates 4-0 in the one-game Wild Card playoff, following an absolute gem by Jake Arrieta on the hill. The victory was the first playoff win for the Cubbies since 2003 (we don’t talk about the 2003 playoffs on this blog. Or ever.). A meeting with arch-rivals the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS awaited Maddon and the Cubs. After coming up short in game one (Jon Lester looked phenomenal here, by the way), the Cubs would bounce back for three consecutive wins to eliminate the “Red Birds,” and advance to the NLCS. I will never forget the moment when former Cub Hector Rondon finished off the Cardinals with a pitch in the dirt. I fell to the floor in my parents’ garage and just stared at the TV. As tears filled my eyes, my emotions could not be matched. The previous garbage seasons no longer mattered, and we had Joe Maddon to thank as much as the players on the field. Unfortunately, the Cubs’ magical run came to an end following a 4-0 sweep by the New York Mets in the NLCS. Again, this is a subject I do not like to talk about much. However, Joe and his unrivaled charisma won the 2015 MLB Manager of the Year award, and there was no argument on my end. He took a team that had only won 73 games the year prior to 97 victories in 2015, a 24-game swing. Oh, not to mention, he also happened to manage the NL Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta), and the NL Rookie of the Year (Kris Bryant). Not a bad first year.

With 2015 in the rear-view, Maddon and the Cubs looked to bounce back better than ever, and they did not disappoint. The 2016 Cubs were seen as potential favorites to win the World Series. I still, to this very moment, cannot believe the Cubs were ever seen as favorites to win a title. Even though the talent was there in abundance, especially with the additions of super utility-man Ben Zobrist and the Gold-Glover Jason Heyward, I had just been so accustomed to heartache from my favorite sports franchises, especially by the Cubs. However, I trusted Joe. I believed in Joe. This was the year.

This team was something special. Young, superstar talent mixed with hungry veterans made for instant magic and chemistry on the field. I mean, the squad won 26 of its first 34 games for crying out loud. The Cubs would basically run-the-table for the 2016 campaign, as Maddon’s Baby Bears led the NL Central from start-to-finish to claim the NL Central Division title. A key addition in closer Aroldis Chapman from the Yankees at the trade deadline was enormous, helping pace the Cubs to a 103-58 season record, their first 100-win season (basically) since the Ice Age. Oh, again, more accolades to add to Maddon’s incredible resume, as he managed the 2016 NL MVP (Kris Bryant) and two Cy Young Award finalists (Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks).

As memorable as the regular season was, the Chicago Cubs fan base will forever remember the playoffs from start-to-glorious-finish. I will NEVER forget the pure effort and energy that Maddon brought. Sure, we cursed some of his choices, but without him, moments like these may not exist:

  • Baez’ game-winning homer in the NLDS off Johnny Cueto
  • The epic 9th inning comeback inside of AT&T Park to advance to the NLCS
  • Defeating Clayton Kershaw in game 6 of the NLCS to advance to the World Series
  • The ENTIRETY of the seven-game set against the Indians, especially Game 7.  

After 108 years, the “Loveable Losers” finally reached the top of the mountain, and it was so, so beautiful.

“This is gonna be a tough play. Bryant…the Cubs… WIN THE WORLD SERIES! Bryant makes the play. It’s over, and the Cubs, have finally won it all! 8-7 in 10!” — Joe Buck.   

2017 would bring a second consecutive NL Central Division title, but an elimination from the playoffs at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLCS. 2018 was disappointing, to be honest. The team would win 95 games, but fail to get past the Wild Card, being ousted by the Colorado Rockies. The writing was on the wall at that point for Joe, which, I understand. A team like the Cubs had no business losing in the Wild Card game, especially after the three-year-run the seasons prior, possessing nearly same roster. Then, following a miserable 2019 campaign, the Cubs finished with just 84 wins, far below expectations.

And, with that, Maddon was let go. I will not dwell on the negatives of his tenure, now or ever again. I sit here in regret thinking about the things I may have said about Joe at times, and he did not deserve the scrutiny. He did what many mangers have only dreamed of, and what many before him failed to do. He brought a World Series championship to the most loyal and loving fan base in all of sports. He truly is not only a Cubs or Major League Baseball icon; he is now a Chicago icon and will be forever.

So thank you, Joe. Thank you for everything. You will never truly understand how grateful Cubs fans are that you took the job when you did. Nobody could have done it better. Nobody.

(Baseball) Playoffs?! We’re talking about playoffs?!

A preview and predictions for Major League Baseball’s Postseason

By: Jesse

2019 Major League Baseball Postseason Bracket (CBS Sports)

As a baseball fan, we just watched another fantastic season. As a fan of a specific team, well, it was a less than stellar finish. But I digress. For the second time in three years, the record for most home runs hit in a season (by the entire league) was broken. It had been 6,105, set in 2017. After this season, the record now sits at 6,735 – 630 more dingers than the previous record.

Justin Verlander just hit 3,000 strikeouts and led the league with 21 wins. He and teammate Gerritt Cole each had 300+ strikeouts, with Cole leading the league at 326. Tim Anderson of the White Sox won his first batting title with a .335 batting average, while Christian Yelich secured his second in a row at .329, despite being injured since September 10th (and out for the year) with a broken kneecap. I think Yelich probably remains the favorite for repeating as National League Most Valuable Player, as well, though Cody Belinger of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Anthony Rendon of the Washington Nationals are in the conversation.

Pete Alonso (also an MVP candidate) of the New York Mets not only broke the record for home runs in a season by a rookie, but led the league with 53 long balls. Eugenio Suarez of the Reds had 49, and the Royals’ Jorge Soler (obligatory “former Cub” mention here) led the AL with 48. Rendon led in runs batted in with 126.

So where does that leave us? With October baseball, of course!

I know what you’re asking yourself: Jesse, how’d you do with your preseason predictions to now?

I’m glad you asked.

If you go back and read our preseason piece (or most of the midseason update), you can get a feel for how I thought the season would play out to this point. As far as how many teams I correctly predicted making the playoffs, I got seven out of the ten correct (Rockies, Red Sox, and Cubs let me down). For division winners, I got five of the six (I had Washington winning the NL East, not Atlanta).

The Wild Card Games are Tuesday and Wednesday this week. The Milwaukee Brewers travel to our nation’s capital to play the Nationals in the National League Wild Card game on Tuesday. Whoever wins that will go to Los Angeles and play the Dodgers, who won 106 games this year.

Wednesday’s American League Wild Card Game features the Tampa Bay Rays at the Oakland Athletics. The winner of that goes on to a best-of-five with the AL’s number one team, the Houston Astros, the league’s best team with 107 wins.

The rest of the first round includes the St. Louis Cardinals against the Atlanta Braves (Atlanta having home-field advantage due to the better record), and the Minnesota Twins against the New York Yankees in the American League (New York will enjoy home-field advantage there). Each of those series is a best-of-five.

Of course, from there, the Championship Series for each league is a best-of-seven, and then the World Series follows the same format. If the schedule plays all the way to Game 7 of the World Series, the MLB playoffs will conclude October 30th.

So, I know you’re just dying to know what I think about who will win it all. You’re in luck!

Wild Card Round

We’ll keep this one really short. The Brewers have been red hot AGAIN in September (just like last year’s surge to the division crown), but how far can a Yelich-less Milwaukee go? I think they could easily win, but I’m going to go with the Nationals because they’re at home and will likely throw Max Scherzer. I like them to go on and face the Dodgers.

In the American League, we have another matchup that could go either way. As of right now, the A’s haven’t announced a starter (though it will most likely be Sean Manaea), but Charlie Morton will get the ball for Tampa. He’s been dynamite this year, particularly against Oakland (0.68 ERA in two games). I’m going with the Rays to move on to Houston.

Division Series

Our official matchups (based on predictions so far) are Cardinals/Braves and Nationals/Dodgers in the NL and Twins/Yankees and Rays/Astros in the AL.

What I desperately want to see happen is the Cardinals, Dodgers, and Yankees all lose in the first round. That’s the fan in me. I’ll try and keep those aside for now.

I think the Dodgers will beat the Nationals in four games. In the other NL series, I think the Braves will squeak past St. Louis in five games to move on to the Championship Series for the first time since 2001.

On the other side of the bracket, I think the Astros defeat Tampa Bay in four games, and while I want the Twins to win and have been incredibly impressed with them this season, I think the Yankees are just too good and will win in four games as well.

Championship Series

That leaves us with the Los Angeles Dodgers versus the Atlanta Braves on one side, and the Houston Astros against the New York Yankees on another.

Dodgers/Braves could be a very good series. Again, the fan in me wants the Braves to win, but I think LA is just too deep and Atlanta is too young. Their time to shine is around the corner, but I don’t think it’s this year. Dodgers in six and on to their third consecutive World Series.

Yankees/Astros this year is a matchup for the ages. Both teams topped the 100 win mark (103 for New York, 107 for Houston) and are stacked from top to bottom. A Yankees/Dodgers World Series is an absolute nightmare scenario in my mind, but I think the Astros are the better team and will win an exciting seven game series to make their second World Series in three years.

World Series

Just like 2017, I have the World Series matchup being the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Houston Astros. To be fair to myself, this is probably the matchup I would have picked at the beginning of the season, but to be fair to you, since I didn’t put it in writing back in March/April, I won’t give myself too much credit.

Can this be the year Los Angeles breaks through and wins its first title since 1988? Or will Houston win its second World Series in three years and stifle the Dodgers once again?

Two years ago, these two teams went seven games in an all-out brawl of a World Series. The Astros, of course, came out on top. Not much has changed for either side, but Houston acquired Zack Greinke from Arizona at the trade deadline this year, and I think that makes the difference. The trio of Greinke, Gerritt Cole, and Justin Verlander is better than LA’s trio of Hyun-Jin Riu, Walker Buehler, and Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw’s postseason struggles continue, Alex Bregman wins World Series MVP, and the Astros win another title, putting down the Dodgers in another thrilling seven game series.

Thanks for following our MLB coverage this season! There won’t be any need for us to follow up at the end of October because these picks are sure to be a lock. Now you can get back to watching football.

NL East Preview

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

By: Jesse

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

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

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

Let’s dive right in.

Washington Nationals

Projected record: 90-72

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

No Bryce? No problem!

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

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

Glad you asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Atlanta Braves

Projected record: 88-74

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New York Mets

Projected record: 86-76

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philadelphia Phillies

Projected record: 83-79

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

I know, I know.

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

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

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

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

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

But beyond that? There are some question marks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miami Marlins

Projected record: 53-109

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

Ay yi yi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.