TGS MLB PREVIEW...PLAY BALL! 2018 NL "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.
NL EAST: BEST BET...In a division where not much is certain beyond the Nats being favored, we suspect there is a bit of value to be had with the Atlanta Braves (74½), whose deepest dip into the rebuild abyss might be behind them, especially if rookie OF Roberto Acuna is the real deal, never mind his being sent to AAA Gwinnett at the outset (that is more than likely just a move designed to push back his arbitration a year, much as the Cubs did with Kris Bryant a few seasons ago). Make no mistake, Acuna is a five-tool prospect and considered a potential generational player. He’ll be making noise on the big roster sometime this season. In the meantime, Atlanta appeared en route to more than 72 wins last season had 1B Freddie Freeman, in the midst of what was looking like an MVP season, not been knocked out by a broken wrist suffered when hit by a pitch in mid-May. Meanwhile, CF Ender Inciarte has emerged as a prototype leadoff man with his ability to get on base, score runs, and steal. There are still questions about the staff, where ace Julio Teheran has flashed All-Star potential, but rotation depth is an issue, especially after the Scott Kazmir experiment ended with his release on Monday. Better news is that if the Braves get to the 9th inning with a lead, closer Arodys Vizcaino proved he could shut the door pretty well last August and September. This win total is not too prohibitive so we look “over” at Sun Trust Park and the adjacent Battery entertainment district, which makes for a unique ballpark experience.
OTHERS: Plenty of intrigue surrounding the Washington Nationals (92½), whose title window threatens premature closure if cornerstone pieces Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy (in their contract years) walk in the offseason. And only Trump is feeling more pressure in D.C. than new manager Dave Martinez, who inherits a team that averaged 96 wins the last two seasons. That wasn’t enough to prevent Dusty Baker’s dismissal because of ongoing playoff failures, which reached unthinkable frustration levels in last October’s NLDS loss to the Cubs. Almost the entirety of Baker’s staff was also released, so there will be something of an adjustment phase. Make no mistake, this is still the best team in the division as long as Harper and Murphy (nursing a sore knee coming out of West Palm Beach) remain in the fold, and CF Adam Eaton healthy once more. The staff might be the NL’s best, too, anchored by NL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, while closer Sean Doolittle proved a worthwhile addition from the A’s. But in D.C. these days, it’s all about the playoffs, and Martinez will be judged by what happens in October. For one more season, at least, the Nats should be playing that long. In the shaky NL East, it’s “over” almost by default atNats Park, where a chili half-smoke at one of the Ben’s Chili Bowl locations in the stadium remains a must.
South Florida fans have seen this act before from the Miami Marlins (64½), whose new ownership group took a look at the books and decided the roster needed to shed salary and fast, before conducting another fire sale in the winter. Thus, offloaded in short order, were core pieces Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna, and Christian Yelich, leaving a stripped-down version of an everyday lineup now into a full-scale youth movement and hoping that sorts such as rookie CF Lewis Brinson are ready for the jump. Late addition RF Cameron Maybin adds a bit of a veteran look to the young lineup, but at the outset, it will require scorecards to keep track of the new names on Don Mattingly’s roster, which will have to manufacture runs minus all of last year’s power. That’s not the only problem, as the Marlins had MLB’s fifth-worst ERA last season despite playing in a pitcher-friendly park, and presumptive number one starter Dan Straily (elbow tightness) opens the season on the DL, where Wei-Yin Chen (also an elbow) likely jpins him to open the season. Good news? We can’t find any, at least not yet. Look ”under” at Marlins Park.
With the Eagles off of their first Super Bowl win, and the Sixers and Flyers both bound for the playoffs after recent postseason absences, there has to be some target for the venom of the Sports Talk WIP crown that lives to vent. So, the Philadelphia Phillies (75½) might serve that purpose for guests on Angelo Cataldi and Howard Eskin’s shows, though we don’t think the Phils are going to be all that bad, not necessarily because of late addition FA pitcher Jake Arrieta, a few years removed from a Cy Young Award (though not knowing what he’s getting into with his new fan base). But there remains plenty of upside in an everyday lineup that added 1B Carlos Santana’s power bat from the Indians, gets a full season out of August-September sensation LF Rhys Hoskins (18 homers and 48 RBI in just 50 games last season), and was encouraged by the work in Clearwater of 3B Makiel Franco, who despite declining numbers a year ago, did strike out much less and retains tantalizing potential. The Phils might have overspent on Arrieta, but he does add some stability to the staff. Now let’s see if Aaron Nola can remain healthy, and if new manager Gape Kapler can find some answers at the back end of his rotation. The best news is that in a division where nothing besides Washington looks a sure thing, there will be plenty of opportunities for wins. So we project “over” at CBP while looking forward to our next visit and a chance to devour another “Schmitter” from the food stand down the third base line.
If there is a mystery team in the NL, it’s the New York Mets (81), who had a World Series trip and another playoff appearance in front of last season’s collapse to 70 wins. We suspect, however, that 2017 was the outlier, as do most fans of the Nats, who believe the Mets could offer them a serious challenge. If, that is, New York can stay healthy, especially a staff with all sorts of potential aces (Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz, plus former lights-out closer Jeurys Familia) who have been sidetracked by injuries. The lineup has its own health questions with CF Michael Conforto (shoulder) opening the season on the DL, and the electric Yoenis Cespedes off a season in which he missed about half of the games due to hamstring issues. And we’ll see if ballyhooed SS Amed Rosario is ready for full-time duty. For the moment, we suspect that vet roster additions RF Jay Bruce (after an effective “loan” to Cleveland last summer) and 1B Adrian Gonzalez might be help for new manager Mickey Callaway. But with so many questions regarding the pitching staff, we could see the Mets landing anywhere between 70 and 90 wins. So we’ll simply pass at Citi Field instead.
NL CENTRAL: BEST BET...It was not quite the smooth ride everyone expected a year ago from the Chicago Cubs (94½), whose magical 2016 proved a difficult act to follow. In the end, the Cubs finally did pull away in the Central but not before recording the lowest win total (92) in Joe Maddon’s three years as manager. This is still the team to beat in the division, but, in 2017, the lineup began to lean awfully heavy upon 1B Anthony Rizzo and 3B Kris Bryant, who were not always able to produce all of the miracle moments that they did the previous season. The everyday lineup has some other issues, with RF Jason Heyward an ongoing liability at the plate, and LF Kyle Schwarber (built for AL DH duty if we’ve ever seen it) a significant liability (as well as a danger to other Cub fielders) in LF. Meanwhile, the signing of Yu Darvish should fill Maddon’sgap in the rotation created by allowing Jake Arrieta to walk in free agency, and the Cubs get Jose Quintana for a full season after his handy addition from the Chisox before the deadline last July. We do expect a fourth straight playoff season for Maddon’s Cubs, though much like a year ago, it probably will not be without several bumps along the way. We’re looking “under” at Wrigley Field.
OTHERS: The Milwaukee Brewers (84½) aren’t flying under the radar as they were at this time a year ago when they made a surprise challenge to the Cubs in the Central and barely missed a playoff spot (finishing a game behind the Rockies for the last NL Wild Card). Rather than sit still in the offseason, the Brew Crew made some significant moves, inking ex-Royals CF Lorenzo Cain in free agency and taking advantage of the Marlins fire sale to pry RF Christian Yelich out of Miami. All of a sudden, this new influx of speed and power gives manager Craig Counsell one of the best outfields in the NL along with the emerging Domingo Santana. Meanwhile, Counsell will spot former MVP Ryan Braun in the OF and platoon him at 1B (against left-handed starters) along with Eric Thames. But we think some of the Brewer bullpen additions could be among their most valuable upgrades, with lefty Boone Logan and righty Matt Albers now in front of dominant closer Corey Knebel. If an underrated starting rotation holds up as well as last season, the Brew Crew pushes the Cubs all the way and gets to the playoffs. It’s an “over” at Miller Park while we advise to enjoy Bob Uecker, still going strong at 84 years old, on the Brewers radio network (and a reason to subscribe to Sirius radio) while we still can.
Unlike the NBA Sixers version of “The Process” that netted them cornerstone pieces Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons from recent drafts, there is no immediate dividend evident for the version of the MLB “Process” as constructed by the Cincinnati Reds (73½), who have been languishing around the 70-win level for the entirety of manager Bryan Price’s four seasons. (Though Price cannot be blamed for the subpar talent levels on the team, he hasn’t gotten the Reds to punch above their weight, either, and returns for a fifth campaign.) Not sure much changes in 2018, especially with little evidence of upgrades from a staff that has been injury prone and ineffective, not the best combination. Oft-injured Homer Bailey, who posted a 6.43 ERA when healthy last season, will be Price’s opening day starter, while Anthony DeSclafini is now bothered by a strained oblique and likely starts the season on the DL, where he spent much of 2017. Though a lot of young arms were showcased last season, we’re not sure any of them are going to be of much help, though some bullpen upgrades (Jared Hughes and David Hernandez) might give Cincy a better chance to get to closer Raisel Iglesias with a lead in the 9th inning. The offense has some pop with five 25+ homer hitters from a year ago led by still-productive Joey Votto, but the 1970s Big Red Machine would have trouble compensating for this subpar pitching staff. Expect a lot more complaining by iconic, yet often acerbic, play-by-play man Marty Brennaman as it’s another “under” at Great American Ballpark.
The escalator ride has been down the past couple of years for the Pittsburgh Pirates (73), whose playoff appearances in 2013 thru ‘15 must seem like a dream these days. The heart and soul of those postseason qualifiers, CF Andrew McCutchen, was dealt to the Giants in the offseason, while staff ace Gerrit Cole was traded away to the Astros. Those moves have saved GM Neal Huntington some salary but confirmed the Bucs’ ongoing small-market plight. The next to go could be valued utility man Josh Harrison, who has been making noise about a trade and should have no shortage of suitors at the deadline. StarlingMarte (who missed half of last season on suspension) and Gregory Polanco remain in the outfield, and newly-added Corey Dickerson was an All-Star with the Rays last season, so the cupboard isn’t completely bare, while 1B Josh Bell (26 HRs in 2017) has good power. But the lineup isn’t frightening, depth is questionable, and shrewd pitching coach Ray Searage has big job on his hands to develop another ace after the departure of Cole. Not sure how many chances solid closer Felipe Rivero gets this season. Tickets are available at PNC Park, our favorite MLB venue, but it looks like Greg Brown, Steve Blass, and Bob Walk will be describing another “under” on Pirates TV.
The St. Louis Cardinals (85½) never ignited in 2017, causing some to wonder if manager Mike Matheny would make it back for a seventh season. Matheny is still in the fold, but we’re still wondering where the Redbirds fit in the NL mix. The staff could be a strength if Adam Wainwright, who won at least 19 games in four of a recent five-season stretch, returns to past form that deserted him the last two seasons, or Carlos Martinez halts last season’s regression when allowing way too many homers (27) as his ERA jumped a half a run. Even if the rotation delivers, however, we wonder about a bullpen where Matheny is likely to go closer-by-committee after GM John Mozeliak failed to land prime targets Alex Colome and Wade Davis in the offseason. Likely first option Luke Gregerson (one of the few disappointments last season with the Astros) exited Jupiter with a hamstring strain and opens the season on the DL. At the plate, it is hoped that LF Marcell Ozuna, added from the Marlins in their clearance sale, provides more sizzle in the batting order than the departed Randall Grichuk, but 1B Matt Carpenter is off of his worst offensive season, and we wonder how long the Kolten Wong experiment will continue to last at 2B. We can envision a variety of different scenarios for the Cardinals, but need to buy a few more vowels from Vanna White before having a better idea, so we’ll just pass for now at Busch Stadium.
NL WEST: BEST BET...Admittedly, having your top two rotation pieces start the season on the DL is hardly part of the prescribed bounce-back recipe for the San Francisco Giants (81½), who collapsed to nearly 100 losses a year ago. The good news is that Madison Bumgarner (broken finger when hit by a line drive in the Cactus League) and Jeff Samardija (pectoral injury) should both be back well before Memorial Day, when it is hoped the ‘Jints are not too far behind in the NL West. And they might not be, with GM Brian Sabean resisting the urge to go with the now-chic rebuild and instead trying to reload with veterans to get BruceBochy’s club contending again ASAP. In all, Sabean added four key parts, all past their 31st birthdays, including a couple of past MVP contenders (3B Evan Longoria and RF Andrew McCutchen), plus CF Austin Jackson and set-up man Tony Watson. All figure to play key roles this season for a lineup that still has some holdover star power in C Buster Posey and SS Brandon Crawford, and while veteran, has only one projected starter older than 32 (LF Hunter Pence at 34). Many of the candidates for improved seasons (including Pence, SP Johnny Cueto and 1B Brandon Belt) must deliver, but we envision the Giants among the contenders as long as Bumgarner and Samardzija return soon enough and pitch to their capabilities. Not a lot to ask...at least we don’t think. “Over” at AT&T Park, and follow the Giants if you can with Jon Miller’s entertaining play-by-play on blowtorch 680 KNBR, or the sophisticated dialogue between Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow on NBC Sports Bay Area.
OTHERS: The Colorado Rockies (82) aren’t getting a lot of respect after their unexpected revival last season and first playoff berth in eight years (though the postseason stay was brief in a Wild Card loss to the D-backs). In the offseason, GM Jeff Bridich didn’t waste any time looking for needed upgrades in the bullpen, inking closer Wade Davis in free agency while also adding ex-Indian Brian Shaw, who has appeared in at least 70 games every season since 2013. Now the bullpen looks to be a possible strength, and the rotation was better than expected last season, with Jon Gray emerging as an ace, thanks to his ability to pitch at Coors Field, where his ERA was surprisingly almost one full run lower than it was on the road. Indeed, the decision last year to ink skipper Bud Black and his pitching knowledge proved a real plus for the staff. Re-signing OF Carlos Gonzalez late in spring training brings back almost all of the lineup from a year ago, which should also have the versatile and usually-durable Ian Desmond for a full season after he was limited to 95 games a year ago. With the core of a decent team that responded to new manager Black, and apparent upgrades in an area of weakness (bullpen), Rockies fans might have something to cheer about and cause them to forget about what havoc John Elway has wrought with the Broncos. We’re looking “over” at Coors Field.
It took 29 years but the Los Angeles Dodgers (96½) finally got back to the World Series a year ago. They didn’t win, however, and we suspect the ride might not be as easy this season. Not to get carried away by the Cactus League, but unlike recent years, the Dodgers really struggled at Camelback Ranch where valued 3B Justin Turner was lost with a broken wrist in late March, and no timetable for his return. Turner’s clutch hits and flair for the dramatic are not easily replaced. Meanwhile, Matt Kemp, re-acquired in a trade with the Braves to help the Blue get under the luxury tax, could start in LF after not even figuring to make the roster entering camp. Moreover, SS Corey Seager played it gingerly in the Cactus League as he continued to rehab an elbow injury, and NL Rookie of the Year 1B Cody Bellinger wouldn’t be the first big leaguer to endure a sophomore slump. We’re nit-picking a bit, perhaps, and worth noting that LA didn’t skip a beat last summer even when Clayton Kershaw went down for more than a month, but there are some staff durability issues with Kershaw, Rich Hill, and Hyun-Jin Ryu, while promising Julio Urias is already likely lost for the season with shoulder problems. We suspect that avoiding complacency might be the biggest challenge for the Blue, and GM Andrew Friedman might have to get active before the deadline to refresh a roster that did not move much in the offseason. The Dodgers should still win 90+, but maybe not 97, so we’re looking “under” at Chavez Ravine.
A good GM and manager can make a difference, we suppose. So, after languishing for a few years, the Arizona Diamondbacks (85½) finally took off in the right direction last season after replacing overmatched GM Dave Stewart with Mike Hazen from the Red Sox front office, and another off of the Bosox coaching staff, Torey Lovullo, as the new manager. The on-field change was immediate, as the D-backs suddenly began paying attention to detail, running the bases smarter and fielding cleanly, while the pitching staff revived behind Zack Greinke, who flashed his former Cy Young form after a rough first year in the desert in 2016. There’s a chance Greinke opens the season on the DL after suffering a mild groin strain near the end of the Cactus League, but it’s nothing serious, and the staff demonstrated excellent depth last season with Robbie Ray emerging as a potential dominator and Taijuan Walker finally justifying his enduring hype. We also don’t think the bullpen suffers with set-up man deluxe and spiritual leader Archie Bradley now the closer after Fernando Rodney’s high-wire act departed for Minnesota in free agency. We have a bit more concern with a batting order that derived great benefit from now-departed JD Martinez’s power numbers following his addition from the Tigers, but newly-added RF Steven Souza can fill some of that gap, while Jake Lamb and Paul Goldschmidt continue to provide plenty of sock in the lineup. Bottom line is that we don’t think 2017 was a fluke, now that the D-backs are playing the right way with their new braintrust; it’s another “over” at Chase Field.
The San Diego Padres (68½) are still in the major leagues, we think, though it’s been easy to overlook them in recent years, performing in near-anonymity at Petco Park. We’re also not sure San Diego is any closer to becoming a fringe contender this season, but the Pads might not be that terrible, especially after hinting that they are serious about putting a better product on the field by shelling out big bucks for one of the prizes of the FA crop, ex-Royals 1B Eric Hosmer. Petco plays big and has spooked hitters before, but Hosmer looks a nice upgrade for an offense that can now move Wil Myers full-time to RF, where he’ll team with promising Manuel Margot and Hunter Renfroe in an intriguing OF mix. Ex-Phils SS Freddy Galvis should be a useful addition as well. Before getting too excited, however, consider a staff with more question marks than restaurants in the nearby Gaslamp Quarter, and manager Andy Green unable to do anything better than journeyman Clayton Richard as the opening-day starter. Young righty Bryan Mitchell, over from the Yankees, looks to have landed one of the rotation slots, but didn’t impress us much when we saw him get hit hard in Peoria late last week by the Rangers. If Hosmer hits as expected and the young outfielders continue to mature, the Padres might be more fun to watch than usual, but we can’t really project much of an upgrade without more evidence of improvement from the pitching staff, so we’re going to pass instead at Petco Park.
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