Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Predicting the 2018 Season—American League

With Game 7 of the World Series taking place on November 1 and Opening Day shutting down schools and businesses for a national day of celebration this Thursday, we've had one of our shortest—and weirdest—offseasons ever. That's left me scrambling to put out in time the surest sign of spring here at Baseballot: my annual MLB predictions.

For those of you new around here, I do season previews a little bit differently from everyone else. Instead of just ranking the teams in projected order of finish, I predict the exact win-loss records of each team. Instead of surveying each team's strengths and weaknesses, I make a handful of way-too-specific predictions that sum up my expectations for that team's season in a nutshell. Then, the really fun part comes at the end of the year, when I look back on my predictions, highlighting which ones improbably came true—and which ones look ridiculous in hindsight.

First up this year: the American League.

AL East

1. New York Yankees (92–70, 3rd playoff seed)
  • Aaron Judge will hit "only" 35 home runs—but it will still be enough to lead the league, as Major League Baseball secretly replaces the baseball yet again with a less juiced version.
  • Together, Judge and Giancarlo Stanton will be worth the same 8.2 WAR that Judge alone was worth last year—in other words, the Yankees will not get any better post-Stanton-trade.
  • Yankees pitching will severely regress. Sonny Gray will sputter to a 4.80 ERA, Jordan Montgomery and CC Sabathia will both have ERAs below league average, and Chad Green and Tommy Kahnle will revert to the mean.

2. Boston Red Sox (91–71, 1st Wild Card)
  • JD Martínez will injure himself in April and miss a majority of the season, and the Red Sox will still finish in the top five in the American League in home runs. Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, and Rafael Devers will all crack the list of top 30 home-run hitters in the Junior Circuit.
  • Carson Smith will lead the AL in strikeout-to-walk ratio and WHIP.
  • David Price will bounce back; Hanley Ramírez will not.
  • It will be a blessing in disguise for Boston that they missed out on that one-game playoff with New York on the final day of the season. Chris Sale will twirl a one-hit shutout in the Wild Card game, to be followed up (finally!) by his first Cy Young Award a month later.

3. Tampa Bay Rays (81–81)
  • Not a lot of runs will be scored at the Trop this season. The Rays will pair the division's best pitching with its worst offense.
  • With the return of Chris Archer to a 3.00 ERA, a step forward by Blake Snell, and a nice 3.0-WAR bounceback by Nathan Eovaldi, the Rays will have one of the league's better rotations. Of course, it won't hurt that they will cut out its weakest fifth. Speaking of which...
  • The Rays' experiment of having a bullpen day instead of a fifth starter will be a qualified success, lasting throughout the season and giving them a winning record in those games.

4. Toronto Blue Jays (77–85)
  • Everyone in the Blue Jays' pedestrian rotation will post ERAs between 3.80 and 4.20. As a group, they'll have an ERA+ of 100.
  • Justin Smoak won't even hit 20 home runs this time around.
  • For about two weeks in September, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. will be the most exciting player in baseball.

5. Baltimore Orioles (72–90)
  • In the blockbuster trade of the deadline, Manny Machado will be shipped off to the Cardinals for some fishing wire and a small patch of brown liquid. The league change will cost Machado, who will be leading the AL in WAR at the trade, an MVP award.
  • Neither Chris Davis nor Mark Trumbo will be any better in 2018 than in 2017.
  • Tim Beckham and Trey Mancini will both hit under .250.
  • Andrew Cashner's ERA (5.50) will be higher than his strikeout rate per nine innings (5.00).
  • Alex Cobb will request a trade before the end of the year.

AL Central

1. Cleveland Indians (105–57, 1st playoff seed)
  • It's finally the Indians' turn. After going down 0–3 in the World Series, the players will ritualistically burn all their Chief Wahoo paraphernalia, the team will rattle off four straight wins, and Cleveland will be world champions.
  • Yonder Alonso is for real. Playing in the deepest lineup of his career, he'll set personal highs in runs and RBIs.
  • Two excellent months in the bigs will only be enough to nab Francisco Mejia third place in Rookie of the Year balloting.
  • Jason Kipnis will win AL Comeback Player of the Year.
  • Danny Salazar will be a fiend when he comes off the DL: a 2.50 ERA, 13 strikeouts per nine innings, and his first career no-hitter.
  • Following up their historic performance in 2017, the Indians pitching staff will amass the second-most WAR in MLB history.

2. Minnesota Twins (85–77, 2nd Wild Card)

3. Chicago White Sox (70–92)
  • The White Sox' biggest achievement this year—and I'm not being funny, it will actually be very promising—will be that they will send not one, but two representatives to the All-Star Game. Yoan Moncada and Lucas Giolito will also finish 2018 with more than 3.0 WAR each, the clubhouse leaders in that category.
  • For you fantasy hounds, Nate Jones will emerge as Chicago's closer.
  • Look for Avisail García to return to a league-average OPS.

4. Kansas City Royals (68–94)
  • Danny Duffy will continue to blossom into one of the league's best pitchers. This year, his WAR crests 5.0 for the first time.
  • Lucas Duda (one year, $3.5 million) will have a better WAR, home-run total, and OPS than the departed Eric Hosmer (eight years, $144 million).

5. Detroit Tigers (61–101)
  • Miguel Cabrera will take one last gasp of greatness—think 25 home runs and 90 RBIs—before age robs us of his talent for good.
  • If you thought the Tigers bullpen was bad before, get ready for the 2018 version to make a run at the title of worst bullpen of all time—currently the 2013 Astros (−5.2 WAR).

AL West

1. Houston Astros (101–61, 2nd playoff seed)
  • That four-man outfield the Astros were teasing the other day? They'll use it exactly once this season.
  • Lance McCullers will finally show what he's capable of in a full season: the lowest ERA in the Houston rotation, 270 strikeouts, and a second-place Cy Young finish.
  • Brad Peacock will beat out Charlie Morton for the last slot in the rotation.
  • The 2018 Astros will strike out more batters than any other pitching staff in history.
  • After steamrolling the Yankees in the ALDS, the Astros will lose the pennant in an epic ALCS with the Indians—the dream matchup we were denied in 2017. The series will set records for the lowest-scoring and strikeout-heaviest seven-game playoff series in history.

2. Los Angeles Angels (83–79)
  • Mike Trout, MVP, next prediction please.
  • The Angels' splashy offseason will produce useful players, but hardly the superstars they thought they were getting. Justin Upton and Zack Cozart will revert to their career averages, while Ian Kinsler will never exceed 3.0 WAR again.
  • Shohei Ohtani will be an OK hitter and an OK pitcher, but people won't realize that, in combination, that actually makes him a really good player, and he'll lose Rookie of the Year to Gleyber Torres.
  • If I'm right and the baseball returns to its pre-2015 norm, Andrew Heaney is poised for a nice (3.50 ERA) year. If the balls are still juiced, he'll allow 40 home runs.
  • Garrett Richards will lead the staff in ERA thanks to the Angels' league-best infield defense.

3. Oakland Athletics (81–81)
  • Led by Matt Olson (who will turn a .290/.390/.650 season into a top-five MVP finish), the A's will have one of the top three offenses in the league, going by OPS+.
  • By contrast, Sean Manaea will be Oakland's only above-average starting pitcher. As a result, the A's bullpen will log the second-most innings in the league (with an asterisk next to Tampa Bay at #1).
  • The perpetually underrated Bob Melvin will win his first Manager of the Year Award since 2012.

4. Texas Rangers (79–83)
  • Delino DeShields Jr. will lead the American League in stolen bases.
  • Mike Minor will stage a Rich Hill–style renaissance, with 20 or so sparkling starts followed by a physical breakdown.
  • Rougned Odor will bounce back with a .270/.300/.460 slash line.
  • After one atrocious start—appropriately, in Cleveland—Bartolo Colón will finally retire from the major leagues.

5. Seattle Mariners (74–88)
  • With an OBP approaching .400, Dan Vogelbach will wrest the starting first-base job from Ryon Healy early in the season.
  • Without the juiced baseball to help him, Mike Zunino's power—and main source of value—will vanish. He'll be lucky to hit .200 and 15 home runs.
  • Distracted by the position change, Dee Gordon will not only be a liability with the glove, but he'll also hit only .240.
  • Félix Hernández will be Seattle's worst starter by ERA.
  • Edwin Díaz will lead the AL in saves.
  • After the disappointing season, manager Scott Servais will be canned.
  • The Mariners will at least lead the league in something—trades swung.

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