The NCAA Basketball Tournament is through it's first weekend. The Sweet 16 Round begins on Thursday, but so does the 2019 Major League Baseball season. With no 16-seeds beating ones this year, or much in the way of any upsets, let's get out the crystal baseball instead. I've never written (or don't remember writing) a predictions column before, but rather than go down the lisr division by division, I thought I'd take a different approach, and answer some of the key questions about the season, and maybe hide some division and World Series forecasts in there. So, let's ask and answer eleven questions about 2019...
Which is the best division in baseball? We'll start with an easy one, even though many of the sports experts and pundits will get it wrong. Many will say the American League East because of the Yankees and the Red Sox. The others (with East Coast bias still firmly entrenched) will take the National League East, because of a wide-open four team race. The NL East will be the most compelling, forgetting for a moment that the Miami Marlins play there. In the NL Central, though, the Pittsburgh Pirates had a winning record last year, and finished fourth. Cincinnati was lousy, but improved drastically. The Cubs did nothing during the off season, and although Milwaukee is rumored to be close to signing closer Craig Kimbrel, the Brewers didn't do much either. St. Louis got Paul Goldschmidt and improved their bullpen. I'm going to take the Cardinals to finish first, followed by Milwaukee, Chicago, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh. The answer, by far though is the NL Central.
Who will get the fifth playoff spot in the American League? Go ahead and fill in Boston, the Yankees, Cleveland, and Houston for the post season now. We'll get to the order of finish in the AL East in a moment, but you know (barring some serious injuries) that both teams are going to be there. The Astros have little competition in the West, and if Cleveland can keep Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, and their entire outfield off the injured list for the bulk of the year, could cruise to the top yet again. Oakland got that fifth spot last year and figures to be good again but has lousy starting pitching at the moment, Seattle started well then faded and pretty much decided to go into rebuilding mode for this year, Minnesota could make some noise this year, and so could the rebuilding White Sox. Out of left field, let's say the Angels. With Mike Trout in tow until the year 3000, and assuming a nice recovery at the plate from Shohei Ohtani (who won't pitch this year), a decent batting average and 100 RBIs from Albert Pujols, Matt Harvey becomes his old self on the mound again, there really was no collusion, climate change is real ,and Cody Allen can pick up about 45 saves, the Los Angeles Angels could be in the playoffs for one brief shining moment, before losing to the Red Sox or Yankees in the Wild Card game.
So how will the National League East line up?: I'm taking the Phillies, but not just because of Bryce Harper and because everyone else is. They also added Andrew McCutchen, Jean Segura, J.T. Realmuto and David Robertson, and have a darn good rotation with Aaron Nola, Jake Arrieta, Nick Pivetta, Zack Eflin, and Vince Velazquez. Even without Harper, Washington can rake, and they can still pitch. The New York Mets' rotation can only take them so far, but unless Yoenis Cespedes comes back from injury the way Willis Reed of the Knicks did years ago, it's not going to be enough. Atlanta won the division last year, and I'm picking them fourth. And then there's the Marlins.
Who's better? Yankees or Red Sox?: The burning question, and the most debated among those eastern-leaning writers and talkers. I've heard arguments for both sides. The Red Sox won 108 games last year, and will not do that again. The Yankees won 100, and it's likely both teams will be at or near triple digits. Both lineups can mash, but the Yankees have the advantage there. The starting rotation has to go to the Red Sox, although a healthy James Paxton would be a huge addition for the bombers. The bullpen of the Yankees is better, but the Red Sox have been healthier. Looking at Yankee notes before a game is like studying a racing form. I'd like Aaron Judge in the fifth, too, but what's the latest medical report? Red Sox win the AL East.
How many games are the Baltimore Orioles going to lose this year? The 1962 expansion New York Mets have the record for futility. The highlight of their year, on the way to losing 120, is that they were rained out twice. The lowly Orioles lost 115 games last year, and that was with Manny Machado (for half a season before he was traded to the Dodgers), Adam Jones, and skipper Buck Showalter. Machado is now in San Diego, Jones (who for some reason loved Baltimore) reluctantly left as a free agent to Arizona, and Showalter was fired. It's impossible that this team will be better than last year's. Let's say they'll tie the record number, which would be actually be one game better than the '62 Mets. So, 120.
How many games are the Miami Marlins going to lose this year?: The easy answer is a lot. I heard a good line from a spring training telecast this month, that the winner of the NL East might be the team that has the best record against the Marlins. Miami lost 98 last year after trading all but one of their pieces. Now, Realmuto has been freed, and no one seems to be clamoring about all of the great prospects they supposedly have. We do feel really bad for Starlin Castro, though, who Miami got in the Giancarlo Stanton trade. The former Yankee has to wonder how he ended up in Major League purgatory, but at least there's South Beach Am I right? .For what it's worth, the Marlins took two of three against Baltimore last year in interleague play, so maybe they aren't as bad as the Orioles. Put down 106 losses.
How bad are the Giants going to be? I'm not saying this because I'm a Dodger fan (insert big fat smile emoji here), but the Giants could be really really bad. I'll put them down for 98 losses, and keep them away from triple digits just to be nice. They made a late push for Bryce Harper but didn't get him, lost beyond-his-prime but all-around good-guy Hunter Pence to free agency, Buster Posey is getting older by the second, and so are their starting pitchers. They didn't hit many home runs last year, and a younger, steroid-aided Barry Bonds is not about to walk through that door. Rumors will fly in a month or two that the Giants will trade Madison Bumgarner, and they probably will assuming he doesn't crash his bike or get stared at by Yasiel Puig.
Which is going to be the most improved team from last year?: The Phillies were already decent in 2018, so it won't be them in terms of number of wins. The nominees are San Diego, Cincinnati, and the Chicago White Sox. Chicago is still bummed about not getting Manny Machado. The Reds have Puig and Matt Kemp in a small ballpark, and although Sonny Gray had a great spring outing the other day, their pitching still isn't there. The White Sox didn't get Manny, but San Diego did. We're going with the Padres.
Most disappointing? We'll disqualify the Orioles and Marlins because they are expected to be bad, and expectations are low for the Giants. Oakland could wind up there if their starting arms can't get them to a decent bullpen. Colorado's pitching could let Rockies fans down, too. Detroit and Kansas City will be bad, too, but at least they play each other 19 times. I'm picking the Chicago Cubs. With a decent rotation, a pretty good lineup, and a questionable bullpen that probably needs just a small fix, Joe Maddon's club could turn out to be extremely mediocre.
Will the Dodgers win the National League West for the seventh straight year?: They needed 163 games to take the crown from the Colorado Rockies last year. In 2019, those two teams figure to contend again. The Rockies' lineup of Charlie Blackmon, Nolan Arenado, Daniel Murphy, Trevor Story, David Dahl, Ian Desmond, Ryan McMahon, and Chris Iannetta is loaded, but the question about the Rockies for as long as they continue to exist, is can they pitch? The Dodgers can pitch, and can hit, too. Arizona, with the loss of Goldschmidr and Patrick Corbin to free agancy, and A.J. Pollock to the Dodgers, figure to be a shell of their former self. The Padres are emerging, but give them another year or two, and we already discussed the Giants. Yes, the Dodgers win again.
So. The big question?: AL Division winners are (from West to East) Houston, Cleveland, and Boston, and the Yankees beat the Angels in the wild card game. In the National League, Los Angeles, St. Louis, and Philadelphia are the division winners with Washington defeating Colorado in the wild card game. To honor my mother, I'd like to pick a Dodgers-Angels World Series (which she wishes for every year), but we'll take the Dodgers and Red Sox, and since no one ever wins back-to-back, we'll take the Dodgers in six. Big surpriseŚme picking the Dodgers, right? It's okay. You won't remember this come October anyway.
Sayonara Ichi-San: It was an almost perfect ending to Ichiro Suzuki's career. The 45 year-old Japanese sensation, who was really the first position player from that country to make an impact in the major leagues, played the first two games in Tokyo for the Seattle Mariners against Oakland. Those games counted in the standings, Seattle won them both, and Suzuki announced his retirement after that second game. The only thing that would have made it perfect was if he had gotten a hit in his final at-bat.
'Eater Nation: I've only watched one NCAA Tournament game in its entirety so far, and it was the UC Irvine loss to Oregon on Sunday. The Anteaters were down by 12 at halftime, went on a 16-0 run to open the second half, but Oregon came back and won going away. Of the 16 teams remaining, Oregon is the only double-digit seed, and really deserved to be higher. There is no Cinderella at the ball this year.
We are the champions?: Congratulations to the Milwaukee Brewers (19-13) and the Houston Astros (18-11). It means absolutely nothing, but those teams had the most spring training wins in the Cactus and Graprefruit Leagues (Arizona and Florida) respectively. Cincinnati (8-18) had the worst record among teams training in Arizona, but I'm certain it wasn't because of lack of effort.