TGS MLB PREVIEW...PLAY BALL! 2018 AL "FUTURES" TO WATCH!
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
As we like to do at this time each spring, we’re offering our previews of both the American and National Leagues, focusing upon the “futures” (over/under wins) recommendations, with the posted win totals included for every team. And remember that beginning March 29, TGS will provide featured MLB releases (Monday thru Saturday at 10:15 AM PDT) on MLB Top Choice and MLB Top Choice Plus (+), the latter featuring the daily TC plus two other featured releases, available online at www.goldsheet.com.
As always, thanks to TGS Baseball Consultant Daniel M. Gray for his contributions.
AL EAST: BEST BET...While the Big Apple media and rotisserie league-types are over the moon with some of the additions made by the New York Yankees (94½), we’re not so sure. Much of the hype surrounds enlisting Giancarlo Stanton and his 59 homers from the Marlins, but by us the Bronx Bombers had plenty of existing power in the mix (RF Aaron Judge already is a 52-homer guy with just one full season under his belt) and perhaps could have used another contact hitter capable of piling up some RBIs more in the mold of past pinstripe stalwarts like Paul O’Neill and Bernie Williams. And while the rotation should be fine, there are a couple of question marks, such as Luis Severino replicating his 2017 breakthrough and CC Sabathia’s arthritic right knee holding up. Moreover, the jury is very much out on new manager Aaron Boone, in from the ESPN broadcast booth after Joe Girardi took the team to the postseason almost every year. It’s an “under” for us in the Bronx, and we’re not exactly looking forward to another season of Michael Kay describing the action on YES, either.
OTHERS: While we’re a bit bearish on the Yankees, we’re somewhat bullish on the Boston Red Sox (91½), who, by us, look a better bet to win the East. After making the playoffs again last season despite failing to replace Big Papi’s power numbers, the Bosox added JD Martinez and his 45 homers from the D’backs to take care of the DH spot. We like the various interchangeable parts on the Boston roster and the upside on the left side of the infield with SS Xander Bogaerts and 3B Rafael Devers on the up-escalator in their careers. The outfield is full of players (Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley, Jr., and Mookie Betts) who can defend and run. Moreover, there’s a potential Cy Young winner at the top of the staff in fireballer Chris Sale, and Craig Kimbrell was the AL’s dominant closer last season. Like the Yanks, the Bosox also have a new manager (Alex Cora), but we see more value in this low 90s number than we do in the Bronx. It’s an “over” for us at Fenway Park.
We suspect the Toronto Blue Jays (81) have been a bit overvalued. The drop-off a year ago was steep from the playoffs all the way down to 76 wins, when injuries were a recurring issue. But things haven’t started too well in that regard for 2018, with SS Troy Tulowitzki (bone spurs in heel) likely headed to the DL out of the gate after an injury-plagued 2017, when 3B Josh Donaldson also missed extensive time. Jose Bautista and his flair for dramatic homers (which admittedly waned a year ago) is no longer on the roster, either, with a lot of power responsibility now falling on RF Randall Grichuk, over from St. Louis after consistently falling short of expectations for the Redbirds. The staff also had problems staying healthy a year ago, especially Aaron Sanchez, the presumptive ace who only made eight starts in 2017 due to ligament damage in his middle finger after a breakout 2016. And coming out of Dunedin, manager John Gibbons was still looking for a reliable bridge in the bullpen to effective closer Roberto Osuna. Getting back to .500 looks like a bit of a haul, so Buck Martinez is probably going to be describing an “under” at Rogers Centre, though Toronto fans can at least look forward to playoff action from the Raptors and Maple Leafs this spring.
This summer’s fire sale darlings might be the Baltimore Orioles (73), who stand to lose the core of their roster to free agency after the season. Thus, a quick start is essential, or the rumor mill will be whirring faster than Joe Angel will be able to describe the action on 105.7 The Fan. Specifically, Manny Machado, Adam Jones, plus closers Brad Brach and Zach Britton (60-day DL after Achilles tendon injury; likely back before All-Star break) are all in their “walk” years, and if the O’s are looking too far up at the Yanks, Bosox, and anyone else, some or all could be moved before July 31. Stay tuned, as front office intrigue will likely be addressed often in the Baltimore Star as the organization (read aging owner Peter Angelos) decides whether the Birds are ready to tear it all down again and rebuild. The main building block for the future now appears to be 2B Jonathon Schoop, off an AL All-Star appearance, but questions abound elsewhere, including a staff that again is crossing its fingers that youngsters Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman can handle the top two spots in the rotation. All a bit much even for Buck Showalter, who is going to be hard-pressed to pull another rabbit out of his hat. It’s an “under” for us at Camden Yards, where the lines might be a bit shorter this summer for Boog Powell’s BBQ on Eutaw Street, or Polack Johnny’s for some sausages on the concourse behind home plate.
Again flying under the radar are the Tampa Bay Rays (77½), without longtime anchor Evan Longoria in the fold for the first time in a decade after his move to the Giants. The Rays also lose the 51 homers, 102 RBI and 92 runs that Logan Morrison and Luscas Duda combined for last season before each departed in the offseason. So, will the roof collapse at the Trop? Maybe not, because Tampa Bay has proven it can compete with the big spenders in this division after improving by 13 wins a season ago. Vet additions such as OF Denard Span (likely to open as DH) and 1B CJ Cron from the Angels should be useful offensive weapons, and there are high hopes for new 3B Matt Duffy, Longoria’s replacement off of missing 2017 due to injury. The staff is far from the AL’s worst, with ace Chris Archer always seeming on the verge of a breakthrough, while closer Alex Colome led the AL in saves. Still, even though manager Kevin Cash has been able to get the team to punch above its weight the past couple of years, the fact that Tampa Bay could be a seller at the deadline makes us a bit apprehensive to take a stand one way or the other in late March. So we’re going to pass at the Trop but make sure to tune into one of our favorite play-by-play guys, DeWayne Staats, describe the action once again on Fox Sports Sun.
AL CENTRAL: BEST BET...The recent days of the Kansas City Royals (71½) as a serious contender now look pretty far back in the rear-view mirror, especially after letting loose key cogs Lorenzo Cain and EricHosmer from the 2014 & ‘15 World Series teams, plus the big bat of Brandon Moss. But GM Dayton Moore scrambled late to add a few veteran pieces, including 3B Mike Moustakas, who will return to the fold after testing FA waters, while OF John Jay and 1B Lucas Duda add a seasoned presence to the lineup (though Jay, in particular, must improve upon his anemic .198 BA last season with the Cubs). The staff also might not be a liability as long as ace Danny Duffy avoids injuries that sidetracked him last season, while Nathan Karns (back from midseason surgery a year ago) and Jake Junis flash potential from deeper in the rotation. Granted, it was alarming how much closer Kelvin Herrera tailed off a season ago (even losing the closer job in September), and Ned Yost is going to have to rebuild the rest of his bullpen, which probably precludes a run back up to the .500 level. But in a division with perhaps the AL’s two weakest entries (Chisox and Tigers), there are plenty of win opportunities on the schedule. And the Royals only have to get to 72 to make this recommendation work. It’s an “over” at the Big K, where radio play-by-play man Denny Matthews embarks upon his 50th season, there from the franchise’s start in 1969 at old Municipal Stadium.
OTHERS: It’s been a while since Ron Gardenhire has managed in the bigs, but “Gardy” must have wanted back in a big way if he took on the task of steering the Detroit Tigers (68½) clear of the abyss. Which the Motown bunch fell into last season when collapsing to a 64-98 mark and a full rebuild now underway. The road back looks long and winding, especially since a couple of the vets remaining on the roster (1B Miguel Cabrera, whose numbers fell precipitously last season) and DH Victor Martinez (returning from cardiovascular surgery last September) have dropped off considerably from their previous salad days. The new rising star is RF Nicholas Castellanos, who socked 26 homers a year ago, but there is a big youth movement in the everyday lineup. Meanwhile, counting upon much help from the staff appears foolhardy, where presumptive ace Michael Fulmer (who has already dealt with elbow issues) struggled mightily in the second half of last season, and where ex-Nat Jordan Zimmerman remains in the rotation after posting a ghastly 6.08 ERA a year ago. Not exactly sports glory days in Detroit, with the Lions, Red Wings, and Pistons all missing the playoffs, and the Tigers doing well to avoid 100 losses; it’s an “under” for us at Comerica Park.
A return visit to the World Series didn’t happen last October, but the Cleveland Indians (94½) still won more games (102) than anyone else in the AL before running into a hot Yankees team in the ALDS. Anything other than a repeat runaway in the AL Central would be a stunner, as the core of a dominant roster remains in tact as well as arguably the best staff in the bigs. The only significant subtraction from the lineup is 1B/DH Carlos Santana (who moved to the Phils), but ex-Mariner Yonder Alonso (28 homers last year) looks a very able replacement, especially after posting good Cactus League numbers in Goodyear. The concern out of the gate is the ankle injury that will keep LF Michael Brantley on the DL until further notice, but he’ll be back soon, and Cleveland has been winning even without recent healthy seasons from 2B JasonKipnis. It’s the lethal staff, however, that puts the Tribe head and shoulders above most of the competitors in the AL, with ace Corey Kluber off his second AL Cy Young Award in four seasons, depth in the rotation, and an effective pen with set-up man deluxe Andrew Miller (who, it should be noted, wasn’t too sharp when we saw him in the Cactus League last week) in front of lights-out closer Cody Allen. Given the potential wins that await with a heavy dose of Tigers and White Sox in division games, there’s no reason the Tribe can’t reach 100 wins again. It’s another “over” by the shores of Lake Erie, where the locals are more than a bit anxious to end their MLB title drought which now extends 70 years back to 1948.
Will the real Minnesota Twins (82½) please stand up? Is this the team that lost 103 games in 2016 or improved 22 wins a year ago, all the way into an AL Wild Card slot? We think it’s probably more the latter, but the Twins are already dealing with a PED suspension of SS Jorge Polanco for the first half of the season, while number one starter Ervin Santana will be out until at least early May as he recovers from February surgery on his middle finger. The back end of the Twins rotation was already full of question marks, while we wonder about the new-look bullpen that adds Fernando Rodney’s annual high-wire act in the closer role and Addison Reed as the set-up man (more worries about the former than the latter). The best news the Twins got this March in Fort Meyers, however, was that 3B Miguel Sano would not be facing an MLB suspension for assault charges, though this looks to be one of many trip wires laid in front of manager Paul Molitor. We thus forecast an “under” at Target Field while simultaneously looking forward to the entertaining Dick Bremer-Bert Blyleven combo describing the action on Fox Sports North.
Nobody is expecting much from the Chicago White Sox (68), even in the Windy City, where the Cubs take up almost all of the oxygen these days. Like a year ago, the Chisox are likely to be sellers again at the trade deadline, with productive 1B Jose Abreu (off of another 30+ homer season) the next one likely to be leaving town for good from O’Hare in July. The Pale Hose weren’t completely terrible last season, with promise shown by young starting pitchers Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, both acquired in last year’s Adam Eaton deal, though we have reservations about a staff where the often-battered James Shields (5.23 ERA last season) is the rotation ace and likely opening day starter. There are also some young pieces worth watching in the everyday lineup led by 2B Yoan Moncada (part of the Chris Sale trade), RF Avisail Garcia, and touted OF Eloy Jimenez, the prize of last summer’s Jose Quintana trade who opens the season at AAA before an almost-certain recall before Memorial Day. We suspect the Chisox might improve upon last year’s 67 wins, but don’t have much conviction about it, so it’s a pass for us on the South Side while we lament the reduced workload for longtime play-by-play man Hawk Harrelson, who will appear only on occasion (mostly Sunday home games) with Steve Stone on White Sox TV before retiring from the booth after this season.
AL WEST: BEST BET...We don’t like to overreact to spring training results, which usually mean nothing, though fans of the Texas Rangers (77½) might nonetheless be a bit alarmed by Cactus League standings, where the Rangers have been doing their best Cleveland Browns imitation. Usually no reason to be overly concerned, though a starting rotation mostly consisting of reclamation projects (Matt Moore, Doug Fister, and Mike Minor), all in a row behind Cole Hamels, looks like a red flag to us. (Texas did, however, release 44-year-old Bartolo Colon before it broke camp in Surprise). On the heels of last year’s drop from the playoffs all the way to 78-84, it’s not much of a sign of encouragement. So, don’t be surprised to see manager Jeff Banister opt for a 6-man rotation that threatens to wear out a bullpen that does (to its benefit) have several multi-inning relievers. We suggest enjoying 3B Adrian Beltre (who turns 39 in August) while you can, but even he can’t be counted on like a few years ago after enduring an injury-plagued 2017. Too many questions for us about this staff, so we’re looking “under” in Arlington, where they’re underway on a new adjacent Globe Life Park set to open in 2020; will the “boomsticks” (look it up, we can’t describe it) make it onto the menu at the new place?
OTHERS: Nobody seems to be talking much these days about the Oakland A’s (74), who have been trying to get a new ballpark built through multiple ownership groups dating back to the days of the Bash Brothers in the late ‘80s. In the meantime, Billy Beane’s constant wheeling and dealing of promising talent before it can squeeze a bigger-bucks contract has soured the fan base. Still, it has been a while since the A’s put a truly bad product on the field, and we don’t think the current bunch is going to be terrible, either, with the AL’s answer last season to Philly’s Rhys Hoskins, 1B Matt Olson (an astounding 24 homers in 59 games!), and touted 3B Matt Chapman the new kids to watch. The assembly line of serviceable pitchers continues to replenish the inevitable departures (last summer it was Sonny Gray on the move) on the mound, and Kendall Graveman, if healthy (which he wasn’t last season with two stints on the DL), looms as a potential ace. Meanwhile, Blake Treinen was an effective closer after his midseason addition from the Nats. Though we’re never quite sure what an Oakland roster will look like after the trade deadline, we suspect the A’s can clear another modest win total like a year ago. “Over” at the Coliseum, and, for late-night viewing, we recommend Oakland telecasts on MLB TV and NBC Sports Bay Area, where longtime color man Ray Fosse remains one of the best in the business.
There’s talk of a dynasty with the Houston Astros (96½) after their textbook rebuild project resulted in the franchise’s first-ever World Series win last fall. No reason to expect much of a dropoff, with a full season of Justin Verlander (though a World Series win and marrying Kate Upton within a few weeks is going to be a tough parlay to top) and now ex-Pirate Gerrit Cole in the rotation alongside Dallas Keuchel, giving manager AJ Hinch three potential number one starters. That the ‘Stros won 101 last season (plus the World Series) despite various injuries to the rotation speaks to the depth of the pitching staff. And the best days for much of the everyday lineup still appear to be on the horizon, with OF George Springer now buoyed by his World Series MVP performance and 2B Jose Altuve off his third AL batting crown. One stat calculation, OPS+, even rated the Houston offense as the best in MLB history aside the 1927 Yankees. So why aren’t we over the top with the Astros? Going back-to-back is never easy (ask the Cubs), and there is a lot of room to backslide after a historic 2017. Houston should return to defend its crown in the playoffs, but with a few less wins than a year ago; it’s an “under” for us at Minute Maid Park.
A year ago, the LA Angels of Anaheim (84½) made an unexpected run into playoff contention before running out of gas in September. This season, however, the Halos might extend their challenge a bit further, especially if former ace Garrett Richards is back to anchor the rotation after missing much of the past two seasons due to multiple injuries. A healthy Richards, in his contract walk year, makes the Angels an entirely different team if he can stay healthy. And that’s before any contributions from ballyhooed two-way threat Shohei Ohtani, perhaps the most-hyped import ever from Japan, though his Cactus League work from Tempe was far from convincing. Even if Ohtani and the rest of the staff falters, there is enough stock in a lineup with the incomparable Mike Trout, now joined for a full season by Justin Upton in the outfield, and new additions 3B Zack Cozart and 2B Ian Kinsler, to out-slug many opponents. Meanwhile, Blake Parker emerged as a competent closer when called upon last season. The Halos rarely undershoot for Mike Scioscia, and the pieces appear in place to sustain a playoff run into September. We’re looking “over” at the Big A.
If there’s a mystery team in the American League, it might be the Seattle Mariners (81½), who have been quite a tease at times over the past few years. But Seattle usually flatters to deceive, and now, thanks to the Buffalo Bills qualifying for the NFL playoffs last season, rank as the North American pro sports team with the longest postseason drought (dating to 2001). Looking to rekindle some of that 2001 magic, 40+ Ichiro has been re-enlisted, though a more important addition might be CF Dee Gordon, who could provide elite defense at a premium position while adding a dynamic element on the base paths if, like a year ago, he can steal another 60 bases as he did for the Marlins. Offense, however, has not been the concern lately for the Mariners as much as keeping the pitching staff healthy, and recent history does not suggest that King Felix or James Paxton are durable enough to stay off of the DL; indeed, Seattle deployed an astounding 40 pitchers last season–17 starters and 23 relievers–due mostly to injuries. This makes all projections regarding the Mariners more than a bit iffy. With that in mind, we’ll simply take a pass at Safeco Field.
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