Week 1 In Review: A Tale of Two Halves

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Every Monday during the 2018 season, 500 Level Fan will take a look back at the week that was, giving readers a snapshot of all things Blue Jays, including three top stories and the Blue Jay player of the week.

This is what happened in week 1.

  1. A Tale of Two Halves

To paraphrase Charles Dickens: it was the worst of times, it was the best of times.  The first half of Toronto’s season opening 4-game set against the Yankees was nothing but pure misery for fans.  The promise of a more versatile and dynamic offense was nowhere to be found as the Jays looked a lot like the futile squad of 2017.  In those two games the Blue Jays scored a measly 3 runs on 7 hits, only drew 4 walks compared to 24 strikeouts, and hit a putrid .125 (1-for-8) with runners in scoring position.  But the weekend brought much better fortune for Toronto hitters.  They looked more patient and more confident and it paid dividends.  On Saturday and Sunday Jays batters plated 12 runs on 21 hits, had a much more respectable 9:24 walk to strikeout ratio, and hit .278 (5-for-18) with RISP.  The offense doesn’t necessarily need to revert back to 2015 levels for the team to be successful, not with the top-4 of the rotation looking pretty good and the bullpen only allowing three runs in 13.2 IP.  But less of the Thursday/Friday performance and more Saturday/Sunday would be much appreciated moving forward.

  1. Smoak to the Rescue

Justin Smoak broke out in a huge way last season, putting up career numbers across the board and cementing himself firmly in the middle of Toronto’s lineup.  But the big question heading into 2018 was how much of Smoak’s production was sustainable and how much was an outlier.  Well, through four games Smoak looks like he is picking up right where he left off.  He went 7-for-15 in the opening series, with four extra base hits – including two HR.  He celebrated his bobblehead day on Saturday with three hits, then almost single-handedly won yesterday’s contest with a two-run shot in the 7th inning followed by a game-winning grand slam in the 8th.  The fact that both bombs came off of very stingy Yankee relievers (Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson) is an even better sign.

  1. Pillar Runs Wild

Despite Smoak’s Sunday heroics, the highlight of the week was Kevin Pillar’s straight steal of home on Saturday afternoon.  It was Toronto’s first straight steal of home since Aaron Hill did it against Andy Pettitte in 2007.  It’s obviously very early, but Pillar’s 3 SB has him tied for first in all of baseball.


Player of the Week

Justin Smoak, 1B

7-for-15,  2 2B, 2 HR, 2 BB. 2 R, 8 RBI, .467 / .529 / 1.000 / 1.529

Down on the Farm

A look at how the minor league affiliates are doing

Reminder: Better Days Are Ahead

Your weekly reminder that both Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette are Jays

Stats from 2017 (2018 season not yet started)

The Look Ahead

April 2 – 4 vs. Chicago White Sox

April 6 – 8 at Texas Rangers

25 Blue Jay Predictions for 2018

Opening Day is here.  The Jays take on the Yankees tomorrow afternoon to kick off their 162-game marathon, with seemingly low expectations and not a ton of hope for playoff contention.  With Opening Day comes 500 Level Fan’s final prediction column of the year.  In past  Blue Jays prediction columns, I have gone all in on guys like Eric Thames, Colby Rasmus, and Colt Hynes.  Oops, oops, and oops!

So who will be my darling this year?

Here are 25 predictions about Toronto’s upcoming season.  Enjoy!

1. Josh Donaldson rakes in his walk-year, hitting 40 HR with a .980 OPS.

2. Despite incessant rumours all season long, Donaldson lasts the entire season in Toronto and is not traded before the deadline.

3. Aaron Sanchez bounces back to make 30 starts and finishes in the top-10 in Cy Young voting.

4. Marcus Stroman pitches over 200 innings and joins Sanchez in the top-10 in Cy balloting.

5. Jaime Garcia and Joe Biagini put up better combined numbers than Marco Estrada.

6.  Sadly we don’t see Troy Tulowitzki until June, and then only for a few weeks before he misses the rest of the season with yet another injury.

7. Happily, we do see Devon Travis stay healthy, and play over 140 games at 2B.

8. Kendrys Morales narrows his huge OPS splits by posting an OPS less than 100 points greater vs. LHP than vs. RHP.

9. Justin Smoak fails to replicate his huge 2017, but still eclipses the 25 HR mark.

10. Roberto Osuna leads the AL in saves.

11. The Jays never post a streak (either winning or losing) of over 4.

12. Randal Grichuk makes the American League All-Star team.

13. Toronto holds their own against the AL East, finishing over .500 against Tampa, Baltimore, New York, and Boston.

14. Danny Jansen becomes the backup catcher before the season’s half way point.

15. With expectations lower than in years past the Jays fail to reach the 3-million mark in attendance for the first time since 2015.

16. Toronto and Baltimore engage in not one, but two bench clearing incidents.

17. After finishing dead last in the AL and 27th overall in MLB in runs scored in 2017, the Jays offense rebounds to finish in the top half.

18. Travis posts a 25-game hitting streak.

19. Despite pleas from fans, Vladdy Jr. and Bo Bichette do not make a major league appearance in 2018.

20. However, both Anthony Alford and Dalton Pompey play a dozen games each.

20. Jose Bautista signs with Tampa Bay and returns to Toronto as a visiting player on August 10th.  He is greeted by a massive ovation.

21. Rougned Odor hits less than .100 against Toronto pitching.

22. John Axford reprises the Jason Grilli role from 2016 and gives the Jays an impact late-inning reliever in front of Osuna.

23. Axford, Danny Barnes, and Ryan Tepera all post ERA’s below 3.25.

24. Curtis Granderson has a nice first half but is traded in advance of the July deadline.

25. The Jays stay competitive all season long and sneak into the playoffs as the second Wild Card team by outlasting Minnesota on the season’s final day.

2018 MLB Predictions

Over the past week and a half, 500 Level Fan has posted a preview of each of MLB’s six divisions.  Now it’s time to up the ante.  No more “previewing”.  It’s now time to “predict”.

As always, my predictions should not be wagered upon by anybody, because they will likely all be wrong.

The 500 Level Fan predictions will be split over two columns.  The first covers MLB predictions, including final standings, playoff results, award winners, and some miscellaneous categories.  The second will focus on the Blue Jays, with some individual and team predictions.

So sit back, read on, try not to laugh, and get ready to comment.

American League Predictions

East

1. Boston

2. New York

3. Toronto

4. Tampa Bay

5. Baltimore

Thoughts: The addition of J.D. Martinez plugs a huge hole in Boston’s lineup, and a health(ier) Price stabilizes the rotation (which still has concerns)…..New York looks stacked on paper, but there’s no guarantee Judge doesn’t regress, Bird is injured again, and the rotation could be hit or miss…..Would not be surprised to see Toronto win 95 games or lose 95 games.  The added depth and versatility, along with the return of Sanchez, should have the team thinking Wild Card…..Rays had a strange offseason, but still have enough interesting pieces in the rotation to stay out of the cellar…..Britton is out and Machado could be dealt.  Might be a long year for Blanche Showalter and crew.

Central

1. Cleveland

2. Minnesota

3. Kansas City

4. Chicago

5. Detroit

Thoughts: Cleveland looks a bit weaker on paper, but they still have a huge rotation, Lindor and Edwin, and a breakout candidate in Zimmer.  The class of the division…..Byron Buxton continues his breakout and several of the nice additions to the pitching staff pan out enough to keep Minny in contention for a return to October…..They somehow got Moustakas back, but losing Cain and Hosmer spells doom for KC…..Chicago is a year ahead of Detroit in the rebuilding process, and has a bunch of great prospects (Moncada, Kopech, etc.) ready to contribute…..Tigers need Miggy to rebound or else there might not be a lot to get excited about in Detroit.

West

1. Houston

2. Los Angeles

3. Seattle

4. Oakland

5. Texas

Thoughts: There is a shot the Astros have the division wrapped up by early August.  That’s how good they look…..Trout will once again be Trout, but there are serious concerns with Ohtani after his brutal Spring…..The battle for the second Wild Card spot should be year-long and intense but the Mariners will fall just short once again, extending the longest drought in sports…..Oakland is about as big of a wild card as there is.  They might stay in contention all year, or they might lose over 100…..The veterans (Beltre and Hamels) are another year older, and Odor doesn’t bounce back from an awful 2017.  Could be time to change things around in Texas.

Wildcards

Yankees and Blue Jays

Stat Leaders

HR – Giancarlo Stanton, NYY

RBI – Giancarlo Stanton, NYY

Average – Jose Altuve, HOU

SB – Dee Gordon, SEA

Wins – Corey Kluber, CLE

ERA – Corey Kluber, CLE

K – Chris Sale, BOS

Sv – Roberto Osuna, TOR

Awards & Miscellany

MVP – Mike Trout, LAA

Cy Young – Corey Kluber, CLE

Rookie – Willie Calhoun, TEX

Manager – Terry Francona, CLE

Bounceback Player – Aaron Sanchez, TOR

Most Disappointing Player – Shohei Ohtani, LAA

First Major Player Traded – Cole Hamels, TEX

National League Predictions

East

1. Washington

2. Philadelphia

3. Atlanta

4. NY Mets

5. Miami

Thoughts: There’s no slowing down Max Scherzer; Trea Turner and Adam Eaton stay healthy for an entire season; Harper has a big year in his walk year…..Hard not to be excited about the Phillies, and the addition of Arrieta at the front of the rotation makes them that much closer to legitimate contention…..Anthopoulos is now in charge, and Atlanta is about one year away from making a move…..Unless Syndergaard, Matz, and Harvey can prove they can stay healthy, the Mets don’t have a chance…..Not much else to say about Miami.  Laughingstock.

Central

1. Chicago

2. Milwaukee

3. St. Louis

4. Pittsburgh

5. Cincinnati

Thoughts: The Cubs struggled mightily last year and still won the division.  There’s no World Series hangover to deal with in 2018…..Cain and Yelich give Milwaukee a scary good outfield, but can the pitching staff keep things together?…..St. Louis always seems to be a model of consistency, but injuries are already decimating their pitching…..Expect a different year in Pittsburgh, with conversation surrounding who’s next to be dealt…..Cincy has some nice young pieces and could have an electric rotation if the arms stay healthy.  At the end of the day, there’s always Joey Votto.

West

1. Los Angeles

2. Colorado

3. Arizona

4. San Francisco

5. San Diego

Thoughts: Hopefully Kershaw stays healthy and makes a run at a historical season.  LA remains the class of the NL West…..Huge step forward last year for Colorado, and that continues in 2018.  Arenado is just too good…..The loss of J.D. Martinez will hurt Arizona but they still have enough to stay in Wild Card contention for much of the season…..The Giants needed everything to go right in order to contend and so much has gone wrong already…and we’re still in March…..With the the game’s best farm system, and a legitimate free agent in Hosmer, for the first time in a while there is hope in San Diego.

Wildcards

Rockies and Brewers

Stat Leaders

HR – Nolan Arenado, COL

RBI – Nolan Arenado, COL

Average – Joey Votto, CIN

SB – Trea Turner, WAS

Wins – Max Scherzer, WAS

ERA – Clayton Kershaw, LAD

K – Clayton Kershaw, LAD

Sv – Kenley Jansen, LAD

Awards

MVP Anthony Rizzo, CHC

Cy Young – Clayton Kershaw, LAD

Rookie – Ronald Acuna, ATL

Manager – Dave Martinez, WAS

Bounceback Player – Starling Marte, PIT

Most Disappointing Player – Brandon Morrow, CHC

First Major Player Traded – J.T. Realmuto, MIA

Playoffs

American League

Wildcard Round – Blue Jays over Yankees

ALDS – Astros over Blue Jays, Indians over Red Sox

ALCS – Indians over Astros

National League

Wild Card Round – Rockies over Brewers

NLDS – Nationals over Rockies, Dodgers over Cubs

NLCS – Dodgers over Nationals

World Series

In what could be the final year for Kershaw in LA, he leads the Dodgers to redemption in a classic 7-game series win over Cleveland.

Best Day Ever – The Eleventh Annual Fantasy Baseball Autodraft

Fantasy baseball draft cheat sheets?

Throw ’em away.

All your research on position scarcity?

Don’t need it.

Projections, sleepers, busts, and breakout players?

Burn ’em.

If you are a hardcore fantasy baseball fan, stay away.  This is not the draft for you.

But if you are a man (or woman) who enjoys heavy drinking, chicken wings, disgusting shots, and watching a tiny computer screen automatically select baseball players for your team, then get ready.  Buckle up.

Tomorrow brings one of the greatest days on the baseball calendar – the 11th annual PEGS fantasy baseball league autodraft.

What makes this league so unique from others?  Why is this league, the one that I play in each year that requires no draft strategy, my ultimate favourite?  Please, join me in the ultimate guide to the autodraft to find out.

The History

It all started in 2008 when a group of 10 friends decided to set up a fantasy baseball league.  The draft was set for 5 pm on a Wednesday.  Each member of the league planned to stay in the office late in order to draft from work.  Unfortunately, it turned out that the majority of the league was blocked from running Java, meaning they couldn’t access Yahoo’s live draft.

So, instead of drafting, the members of the league convened at a pub and drank multiple pitchers of beer, logged into a laptop, and watched as Yahoo automatically filled our rosters.  The amount of fun, joy, and hilarity that ensued was unexpected, but amazing.

The autodraft was born.

The Draft

From that point on, it was decided that the league would continue each year, and the autodraft would continue as well.  In order to keep the draft standard each year, the following rules were established:

– Only one member of the league is allowed to log in, and only one laptop can be used

– No member of the league is allowed to alter his pre-draft rankings.  Doing so results in his execution (figuratively).

– Every pick must be made by Yahoo.

– The draft must take place at a pub.  Every member of the league must either be there in person, or at least be there in spirit (via text).

– Each member of the league who is at the bar must drink a least three beers, though the commissioner (me) would prefer to see everybody have at least twelve.

The League

Believe it or not, it takes some very shrewd managing to win the league.  Since all teams are essentially random, the GM who makes the best free agent pickups and trades will rise to the top.

In addition, the man who comes in last place faces one of two punishments:

1. He must purchase a round of rye shots for the entire league at the next year’s draft, or

2. He is ruthlessly cut from the league, tarred and feathered and paraded through the streets.

The Penalty Shots

Before the draft the league nominates several players, debates them, and ultimately confirms a final list.  Whenever any of those pre-determined players are drafted, the owner who is stuck with that player must drink a pre-determined shot.  In 2011, there were a total of six penalty shots.  In every year since the number has been expanding.  This year we are up to a minimum of 11.  Meet this year’s penalty shot nominees:

– Bryce Harper

– Miguel Sano

– Giancarlo Stanton

– Shohei Ohtani

– Eric Hosmer

– Todd Frazier

– Miguel Cabrera

– Justin Verlander

– Josh Donaldson

– Joey Votto

– Any Asian Player

The list of potential shots is endless, but will definitely include Rye, Jack Daniels, Tequila, Captain Morgan, Jagermeister, Goldschlager, Hawaiian Lion, and a Bear Fight (made of an Irish Car Bomb immediately followed by a Jagr bomb, as shown below).  This year there has also been an ask for an Angry Balls, which is a shot of Fireball cinnamon whiskey dropped into an Angry Orchard cider.  Good luck gents.

bear fight

The Trades

As mentioned, it is important to be active in the trade market to win this league.  Trading, especially at the draft, and especially before the draft is over, is highly encouraged.

Each year at least one trade has been made during the draft.  Generally these trades are completely random, such as a 21st rounder and a 24th rounder for a 22nd  rounder and a 23rd rounder.  Generally these trades turn out to be ill-advised, including a few years back when a meaningless swap of 23rd rounders ended up not being so meaningless when Mike Trout exploded onto the scene.  Or last year, when one member of the league, a die-hard Detroit Tiger fan, unknowingly traded away Miguel Cabrera, and spend the next 90 minutes wiping away tears streaming down his cheeks.  Or the infamous “longest last name” trade, resulting in a Kevin Quackenbush for Edwin Encarnacion swap.  Brilliant.  Other recent beauties include “First Player over 200 lbs”, “Latest  Alphabetically”, “Same First Name”, and “I give you my 10th pick for your 6th pick if I can get this waitress to sit at our table and drink a beer with us”.  Classic.

The Final Words

Tomorrow’s draft takes place at the beautiful Gabby’s on King East in Toronto.  The fun gets going at 6:00.

Who will be this year’s champion and join this exclusive list, which last year included our first 3-time champion?

2008 – The Forward Claps

2009 – ionionionionionion

2010 – Bear Fights

2011 – The Five Holers

2012 – Dad’s Magic Wiener

2013 – Pupusa Power

2014 – GOD

2015 – Monumental Dog

2016 – Two Enormous UECs

2017 – SUPERCOLLIDER

We’ll find out soon enough.

To all my competitors in the league – get ready.  It’s time.

2018 Division Previews – American League East

Welcome to the final edition of 500 Level Fan’s divisional preview series.  As usual, we saved the best for last – the AL East.

Defending Champion

Boston Red Sox

Past Five Champions

2017 – Boston

2016 – Boston

2015 – Toronto

2014 – Baltimore

2013 – Boston

Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 94.4

Best Player

Giancarlo Stanton, New York Yankees

There is a lot of talent (as always) in the AL East but the nod for best player goes to the man who has yet to play single game as a member of the division.  When the Yankees stole acquired Stanton from old friend Derek Jeter in December they added the defending NL MVP and home run champion to an already loaded lineup.  After five straight seasons battling injury, Stanton finally stayed healthy in 2017 and his awesome potential finally became reality.  He popped 59 HR, drove in 132 runs, and posted a .281 / .376 / .631 / 1.007 slash line, with a 7.6 WAR.  Now, plopped into the middle of a modern day murderers row and playing in a Little League-type stadium, the sky’s the limit.

Honourable Mention: Aaron Judge, Yankees; Mookie Betts, Red Sox

Best Pitcher

Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox

Sale made quite the first impression in Boston last season, coming out of the gates firing and putting up an epic debut season with the Red Sox.  The left-hander led the AL with 214.1 IP, 308 K, a 2.45 FIP, and 12.9 K/9 ratio, and posted a 17-8 record, 2.90 ERA, and 0.97 WHIP.  He was rewarded with an All-Star appearance, a runner-up finish in Cy voting, and a 12th place finish in AL MVP balloting.  If there was once concern it’s that  Sale noticeably tired down the stretch, going 4-4 with a 4.09 ERA in August and September and went 0-2 with an ugly 8.38 ERA against Houston in the ALDS.  With question marks continuing to surround David Price, Rick Porcello, and Drew Pomeranz, the Red Sox will once again be relying rather heavily on Sale’s left arm.

Honourable Mention: Marcus Stroman, Blue Jays; Chris Archer, Rays

Three Storylines For 2018

1. Just Like Old Times

From the mid ’90’s through to 2010, except for a few outlier seasons, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox finished first and second in the AL East.  Fans of the Rays, Jays, and Orioles often lost interest in the baseball season by June when it was clear the best they could do was a distant third.  After a few years of change from 2011-2016, when the division crown was actually passed around between those three, we appear to be back to the old days.  Boston and New York finished 1-2 last season and then spent the offseason adding star players to supplement their young and dynamic cores.  The Yankees brought in Giancarlo Stanton to team up with Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, and Didi Gregorious, while Boston signed J.D. Martinez to slot alongside Betts, Benintendi, Bogaerts, and Pedroia.  With Chapman and Kimbrel, each team also has one of baseball’s best closers, and both have rotations loaded with both solid and spectacular arms.  If there is any potential hindrance it’s that both teams are employing rookie managers, but otherwise, to the nightmares of the rest of the East, both look to be set for years.

2. Is the Window Still Open in Toronto?

After back-to-back postseason appearances in 2015 and 2016, the Blue Jays were once again picked by many to reach the playoffs last year.  But 2017 was a nightmare.  They were decimated by injury (Donaldson, Tulo, Martin, Travis, Sanchez, Osuna, and Happ all missed time), Bautista fell off a cliff, and Morales failed to replace Encarnacion.  Now one of the older teams in baseball is another year older, begging the question: is this still a playoff contending team?  The front office added a lot of nice pieces over the winter giving Toronto significantly more depth and versatility than a year ago.  But the season will likely rest on the health of key players.  Can Aaron Sanchez make a regular rotation turn?  Can Devon Travis finally stay in the lineup every day?  Can Russell Martin still handle a full season behind the plate?  If the answer to those question is yes, the Jays should be in the mix come September.  If not?  Donaldson might be wearing a new uniform in August.

3. Infielders for Sale?

As it stands right now, baseball is set to experience the greatest crop of free agents in history at the conclusion of this season.  The biggest names that may potentially be available are Bryce Harper and Clayton Kershaw, but two of the AL East’s greatest infielders are also potential free agents: Josh Donaldson and Manny Machado.  With the Yankees and Red Sox firmly entrenched at the top of the division, there seemingly is only one playoff spot left to play for and both Baltimore and Toronto will be in tough.  By all accounts the Jays are ahead of the Orioles in the pecking order, but a slow start by either club will set the rumour mills buzzing.  It wouldn’t be surprising to see one of (or both) players gone before the calendar flips to September.

Interesting Stat

115

In 1961, Yankee teammates Roger Maris (61) and Mickey Mantle (54) combined to hit 115 home runs, a record for most HR by teammates.  After bringing Giancarlo to New York over the winter, the 2018 version of the Yankees boasts the reigning AL HR champ AND the reigning NL HR champ in their lineup.  Last season Stanton and Aaron Judge combined to hit 111 bombs, which would have been the second highest total if they shared a uniform.  Judge took full advantage of the short porch in Yankee Stadium, but Stanton called Marlins Park – a notorious pitchers park – home.  Now that he can also take aim at the tiny RF fence in New York we may very well see Maris and Mantle’s record fall.

Who Should Win

New York

Who Will Win

Find out in my season prediction column at the end of March

2018 Division Previews – American League Central

Welcome to part five of 500 Level Fan’s season preview series. Today’s focus is on the AL Central.

Defending Champion

Cleveland Indians

Past Five Champions

2017 – Cleveland

2016 – Cleveland

2015 – Kansas City

2014 – Detroit

2013 – Detroit

Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 94.8

Best Player

Francisco Lindor, Cleveland Indians

Lindor seemingly reinvented himself last season.  It was as if he took a look around baseball, saw home runs flying out of ballparks at record rates and decided that he wanted to hit some too.  The Indians SS more than doubled his career high with 33 HR, and also set career highs with 89 RBI, 44 2B, a .505 SLG, and a .842 OPS.  While his batting average dipped to a .273 mark, Lindor was able to add power to his game without sacrificing his speed (15 SB and an 83% success rate) or his defense (1.4 dWAR, 6th best among shortstops).  He was a key part of Cleveland’s 102 win season, and earned a top-5 finish in MVP voting.  He also just turned 24, so the best is yet to come.

Honourable Mention: Jose Ramirez, Indians; Byron Buxton, Twins

Best Pitcher

Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians

Cleveland had baseball’s best pitching staff last season, and Kluber was the best pitcher on that staff.  He topped the AL in pretty much every meaningful category with a 8.2 WAR, 2.25 ERA, 18 W, 0.869 WHIP, 6.23 H/9, 1.59 BB/9, 5 CG, 3 SO, and a 7.36 K/BB.  He also finished second in strikeouts with 265, posted his fourth straight 200 inning season, and won his second Cy Young award.  After a rough start that culminated with a trip to the DL in May, Kluber returned on June 1 and in his final 23 starts posted a 1.62 ERA and only allowed more than three runs in a game once.  They don’t call him Klubot for nothing….

Honourable Mention: Carlos Carrasco, Indians; Ervin Santana, Twins

Three Storylines For 2018

1. Top Heavy Division

The Cleveland Indians won 102 games in 2017 and despite losing a few members of the team during the offseason are still expected to win north of 95 games in 2018.  The Twins surprised many last season by capturing the second Wild Card slot and made a bevy of moves to ensure they will be very competitive again.  And then comes the rest.  Kansas City somehow managed to retain Mike Moustakas but bid adieu to Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer and should be much worse off in 2018.  Detroit and Chicago are both rebuilding and while neither are expected to be as bad as Miami, 90 – 95 losses are surely within reason.  All of which should make for another very noncompetitive division (see NL East and AL West).

2. Minnesota’s Rotation

The Twins came from seemingly out of nowhere last year to make the playoffs for the first time since 2010, and they did so largely on the shoulders of their position players.  Former top prospects Byron Buxton (5.2 WAR) and Miguel Sano (28 HR in only 114 games) finally broke through, Joe Mauer and Brian Dozier remained offensive threats, and lesser known players like Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler, and Jorge Polanco had big seasons.  So runs shouldn’t be a huge problem in 2018.  Starting pitching, on the other hand, is another story.  Ervin Santana was outstanding last year, but he will be out until May after undergoing finger surgery.  Jose Berrios was solid in his age-23 season, but wore down noticeably in September.  Minnesota tried (and failed) to bring in big names like Arrieta, Darvish, and Ohtani, and instead settled on Lance Lynn, Jake Odorizzi, and Michael Pineda.  Will they be enough?

3. Miguel Cabrera

Once considered the best overall and most consistent player in all of baseball, Miguel Cabrera took a step back in 2017.  His numbers plummeted (16 HR, 60 RBI) and he set career lows in batting average (.249), OPS (.728), and OPS+ (92).  He battled a variety of ailments (groin and back trouble), missed over 30 games, and saw virtually all of his longtime teammates traded away.  Now, as he approaches the age of 35, comes a question: what happens next?  Will he rebound and become the player who finished in the top-15 in MVP voting every season from 2005-2016?  Or will his dropoff continue?  With $184 million and six years still outstanding on his contract, the rebuilding Tigers are likely stuck with him regardless.  But a slugging and smiling Miggy makes for a much more entertaining baseball season, no matter how many losses pile up in Detroit.

Interesting Stat

.464

Virtually all baseball pundits, writers, and even fans agree that there are four elite teams in the American League: Houston, New York, Cleveland, and Boston.  Fangraphs projects each of them to win over 90 games, meaning in all likelihood four of the AL’s five playoff spots are spoken for.  That leaves the remaining 11 franchises to conceivably battle for the second Wild Card spot.  Of those, the top three projected teams are the Blue Jays, Angels, and Twins.  With not much separating those teams, a playoff spot might all boil down to strength of schedule, giving Minnesota a decided advantage.  Using Fangraphs projected win totals, the Blue Jays have an expected divisional opponents winning percentage of .522, the Angels are at .514, with Minnesota bringing up the rear at .464. While Toronto has to face the elite Yankees and Red Sox 38 times and LA gets the Astros 19 times, Minnesota has the privilege of facing Kansas City, Detroit, and Chicago – the projected three worst teams in the AL – a whopping 57 times.  That might just make all the difference in a tight playoff race.

Who Should Win

Cleveland

Who Will Win

Find out in my season prediction column at the end of March

2018 Division Previews – American League West

Welcome to part four of 500 Level Fan’s season preview series.  Today’s focus is on the AL West.

Defending Champion

Houston Astros

Past Five Champions

2017 – Houston

2016 – Texas

2015 – Texas

2014 – Los Angeles

2013 – Oakland

Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 95.6

Best Player

Mike Trout, LA Angels

Last season Trout led the AL with a .442 OBP, .629 Slugging Percentage, and 1.071 OPS, finished in the top-10 in WAR, Offensive WAR, Batting Average, and Walks, and for good measure hit 33 HR and stole 22 bases.  It was enough to earn his sixth straight All-Star appearance and a fourth place finish in MVP balloting.  And do you want to know what’s so crazy about those stats?  He accomplished all of that in only 114 games!  That’s right – Trout missed over a quarter of the season after tearing a ligament in his thumb in late May, yet still put up numbers that were better than most players over the course of a full season.  The legend grows.

Honourable Mention: Jose Altuve, Astros; Carlos Correa, Astros

Best Pitcher

Justin Verlander, Houston Astros

Talk about making an impact.  Verlander was acquired by the Astros at literally the last second before the August 31 trade deadline last season, and wasted no time laying waste to the AL West.  He made five starts down the stretch and went 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA, 0.647 WHIP, and a 43:5 K:BB ratio.  Then in the playoffs he pitched 36.2 innings over five starts and one relief appearance and went 4-1 with a 2.24 ERA, 0.829 WHIP, and 38:8 K:BB ratio.  For his efforts he was awarded the ALCS MVP, a 5th place finish in AL Cy Young voting, and his first World Series victory.  Remember when everybody thought he was slowing down?  Yeah, me neither.

Honourable Mention: Dallas Keuchel, Astros; James Paxton, Mariners

Three Storylines For 2018

1. Houston – As Elite As They Come

So what does a team that won its first World Series championship, won 101 games, took the division by a mind-boggling 21 games, and essentially had a playoff spot clinched by the All-Star break do for an encore?  If you answered “somehow get better” you win!  Houston already possessed one of the best lineups and rotations in all of baseball, then they went out and acquired Pirate ace Gerrit Cole to slot in as their #3 starter.  You read that right – the #3 starter!  Add to that a full season from Verlander, a fully healthy Carlos Correa (he missed two months in 2017), a fully healthy Lance McCullers (as a #5 man!), and a fortified bullpen with the shifting of Brad Peacock back to relief.  Oh – they also have the reigning MVP in Jose Altuve, and a bevy of potential future MVPs (Correa, Alex Bregman, George Springer).  Talk about stacked.

2. Ohtani and the Angels

When he was declared eligible for posting in late November, Shohei Ohtani instantly became perhaps the most intriguing free agent that baseball had ever seen.  Whereas most Japanese players are surrounded by mystery as fans and scouts wonder how their numbers from the Japanese league will translate to MLB, Ohtani was at another level.  This is a guy who posted a .942 OPS last season as a hitter (on par with Josh Donaldson and Carlos Correa) AND a 3.20 ERA as a starter (on par with Carlos Carrasco).  While he was linked with all the usual suspects (Yankees, Cubs, Dodgers) in a somewhat surprising move Ohtani chose to sign with the LA Angels.  That signing marked the beginning of a big offseason for LA, with Ohtani joining Ian Kinsler and Zack Cozart as new recruits.  Long been accused of wasting this generation’s greatest talent (Trout has only made the playoffs once in six seasons), the Angels are hoping that a full year of Trout and Justin Upton, combined with their new players, will finally lead to October baseball.

3. Last Chance for Seattle and Texas

One team hasn’t tasted the postseason since 2001, baseball’s longest drought, while the other has reached October five times since 2010.  Despite those recent differences, the Mariners and Rangers find themselves in eerily similar situations heading into 2018.  Both had identical 78-84 records last year, and both have rosters littered with question marks.  Seattle has an aging core led by Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager, and Felix Hernandez, and durability concerns in their new staff ace James Paxton.  Texas also has several key players on the wrong side of 30 (Adrian Beltre, Cole Hamels, Doug Fister, Tim Lincecum, Bartolo Colon), and an offense that suffered badly in ’17 (hello Rougned Odor).  At the same time, however, both rosters have exciting players that could help push towards the playoffs (Dee Gordon, Jean Segura, Edwin Diaz i n Seattle; Nomar Mazara, Elvis Andrus, Joey Gallo in Texas).  Will either team break through?

Interesting Stat

103

The 2017 Los Angeles Angels scored 710 runs, the fifth lowest total in the AL and only 17 more than last place Toronto.  Nowhere was their offensive ineptitude more apparent than at second and third base.  LA’s second basemen (predominantly Cliff Pennington and Danny Espinosa) posted an OPS of .601, the worst mark in the AL.  Their third basemen (Yunel Escobar and Luis Valbuena) weren’t much better with a .713 OPS, second worst in the AL.  Combined, the Angels 2B and 3B put up a .660 OPS, 103 points below the American League average of .763.  In an attempt to rectify that, LA acquired Ian Kinsler (.725 OPS in ’17) to play second and Zack Cozart (.933 OPS in ’17) to play third.  That is a combined OPS of .818, a whopping 158 point improvement.  Add that to full years from Trout and Upton, along with whatever Ohtani brings, and the Angels should be much improved offensively.

Who Should Win

Houston

Who Will Win

Find out in my season prediction column at the end of March.

2018 Division Previews – National League East

Welcome to part three of 500 Level Fan’s season preview series. Today’s focus is on the NL East.

Defending Champion

Washington Nationals

Past Five Champions

2017 – Washington

2016 – Washington

2015 – New York

2014 – Washington

2013 – Atlanta

Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 94.8

Best Player

Bryce Harper, Nationals

Harper has now completed six major league seasons and he remains one baseball’s biggest enigmas.  He has gone from superstar rookie, to injury plagued, to the greatest player of his generation, to mild disappointment.  After a down year in 2016 he rebounded slightly last year but still dealt with injury, missing 51 games.  His WAR improved from 1.5 to 4.7, he hit 29 HR (second most of his career), and posted a 1.008 OPS and .319 batting average, but because he put up an outrageous 2015 campaign those numbers leave us wanting more.  Perhaps his walk year will provide sufficient motivation to increase his numbers back to MVP-levels.  After all, the largest contract in the history of professional sports might be just around the corner….

Honourable Mention: Freddie Freeman, Braves; Anthony Rendon, Nationals

Best Pitcher

Max Scherzer, Nationals

Although Clayton Kershaw still generally receives the praise of most pundits as the unofficial best pitcher in baseball, Scherzer has proven that he should own that label.  Last season was quite possibly the best year of the All-Star’s entire career.  He led the NL with 268 strikeouts,  a .902 WHIP, and a miniscule 5.7 hits per 9 innings, en route to winning his second consecutive Cy Young award.  Unlike Kershaw, he once again proved his durability by eclipsing the 200 IP plateau for the fifth straight year . If there is one flaw in his resume, it is his performance in the playoffs.  In the last two seasons with Washington, Scherzer has made four playoff starts and posted a record of 0-2 as the Nationals have failed to advance past the NLDS.  With the Nats looking loaded once again, he might get another shot to prove his doubters wrong.

Honourable Mention: Stephen Strasburg, Nationals; Jacob deGrom, Mets

Three Storylines For 2018

1. Why Bother Playing?

It is a question that has to be asked considering the state of the division.  Unless something incredibly unforeseen happens, the only reason the 2018 regular season needs to be played is to determine if the Washington Nationals will have home field advantage in the NLDS and onwards.  The Nats won 97 games last year all while losing Harper for 51 games, Adam Eaton for 138, Trea Turner for 63, and possessing one of baseball’s worst late-inning bullpens for half a year.  Now they get Harper in his walk-year, and presumably full health from Eaton and Turner.  To make things worse (or better) the rest of the division is soft.  The Mets continue to believe that New York is a small market, Atlanta and Philadelphia look promising but at least a year away, and Miami…..well….more on them later.  If Washington does not win the division in 2018 it will go down as a massive surprise.

2. Welcome Back Anthopoulos

The last time we saw Alex Anthopoulos in a General Manager’s role was 2015, a year that Jays fans remember fondly.  A series of bold trades and signings broke Toronto’s 22 year playoff drought and had fans dreaming of a dynasty.  Instead, AA shockingly resigned after the playoffs, joined the front office of the Dodgers and waited for another GM spot to open.  One finally did in Atlanta.  With the Braves, Anthopoulos will inherit a team that might be on the cusp of greatness.  Atlanta may have averaged 90+ losses in each of the past four years, but that losing has allowed them to stockpile one of baseball’s best farm systems.  Led by future superstar Ronald Acuna the Braves have eight players ranked in the top-100 and the #2 overall farm system according to MLB Pipeline.  The future is bright.  Of course, AA has a track record of reaching into the minors to make trades, so if Atlanta is hanging around in July will the Ninja strike again?

3. Disgrace in Miami

While there are high expectations in Washington, and fresh hope in Atlanta and Philadelphia, there are a variety words one can use to describe the situation in Miami.  Disgraceful, disgusting, embarrassing, pathetic, and insulting are a few that come to mind.  Marlins fans are used to their team being dismantled but this time it feels different.  Miami finished 77-85 in 2017, but seemed on the verge of contending.  They had a dynamic sparkplug in Dee Gordon, perhaps the greatest outfield in the game with NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna, and Christian Yelich, and two highly underrated offensive studs in J.T. Realmuto and Justin Bour.  Sure their pitching was suspect, but they appeared to be on the rise.  Then along came a new ownership group fronted by Derek Jeter with a mandate to slash payroll, and slash they did.  Gordon went to Seattle, Stanton to New York, Ozuna to St. Louis, and Yelich to Milwaukee.  The remaining roster is full of reclamation projects, longshot rookies, and old veterans, a mix that looks certain to lose 100 games – if not more.  Poor, poor Marlins fans.

Interesting Stat

76.4%

Based on the names alone, the latest Marlins firesale was devastating enough.  But based on actual statistics?  Yikes.  The 2017 Marlins accumulated a total WAR (baseball reference version) of 26.7: 28.3 by the players and -1.6 by the pitchers.  Derek Jeter and company spent the offseason trading away players who were responsible for 20.4 of those wins.  In other words, Miami dealt away 76.4% of it’s 2017 WAR in one winter.  Without Stanton (7.6 WAR), Ozuna (5.8), Yelich (3.9), and Gordon (3.1) on the roster, it will be up to holdovers Justin Bour, J.T. Realmuto, and Miguel Rojas, along with the newly acquired Starlin Castro and Cameron Maybin to prevent the Marlins from dropping over 100 games.  Good luck with that.

Who Should Win

Washington

Who Will Win

Find out in my season prediction column at the end of March

2018 Division Previews – National League Central

Welcome to part two of 500 Level Fan’s season preview series. Today we focus on the National League Central.

Defending Champion

Chicago Cubs

Past Five Champions

2017 – Chicago

2016 – Chicago

2015 – St. Louis

2014 – St. Louis

2013 – St. Louis

Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 96.4

Best Player

Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds

The division might be loaded with more exciting players on more exciting teams, but it’s impossible to deny the baseball genius of Joey Votto.  After he missed most of 2014 and went through a prolonged slump at the beginning of 2016, many were tempted to write him off.  Boy were they wrong.  Last year, in his age 33 season, he was flat out dominating.  He topped the NL with a .454 OBP, 1.032 OPS, 168 OPS+, and 134 BB, and finished second in both WAR (7.5) and MVP voting.  Perhaps the most staggering stat?  He appeared in all 162 games and only failed to reach base via hit or walk in 13 of them.  As he ages he somehow gets better.

Honourable Mention: Kris Bryant, Cubs; Anthony Rizzo, Cubs

Best Pitcher

Yu Darvish, Chicago Cubs

In a division with several high quality teams, there is a surprising lack of true aces in the Central.  Yu Darvish hopes to emerge as one in 2018.  After spending his entire career with the Texas Rangers, Darvish was shipped to the Dodgers at the trade deadline and was highly effective down the stretch, pitching to a 3.44 ERA and 1.15 WHIP.  However, two disastrous appearances in the World Series (including a devastating outing in Game 7) have raised doubts as to whether he can pitch under pressure.  With Chicago once again poised to contend he will definitely be faced with a lot of pressure.  He’s not far removed from a top-5 Cy Young finish, and the Cubs hope that he rekindles his past success this season.

Honourable Mention: Jon Lester, Cub; Jose Quintana, Cubs

Three Storylines For 2018

1. A Good Old Fashioned Arms Race

In an offseason dominated by negative headlines about collusion, lack of spending, and tanking, it was both refreshing and exciting to watch the three top teams in the NL Central load up and go for it.  In Chicago, the defending champs lost Jake Arrieta and Wade Davis to free agency but added one of the top starters available in Yu Darvish, one of last year’s most dominating relievers in Brandon Morrow, and brought in the underrated Tyler Chatwood for rotation depth.  The Cardinals were heavily rumoured to be a possible landing spot for Josh Donaldson, and ended up taking advantage of the Marlins to acquire Marcell Ozuna.  The Brewers followed suit by snagging Christian Yelich, then signed Lorenzo Cain to give them one of the best outfields in the game.  All of it could make for a crowded view at the top.

2. Can Any Team Hang With the Cubs? 

Despite the arms race within the division, let’s be honest with ourselves: this division is the Cubs’ to lose.  Milwaukee should be much improved, but they have some serious questions.  Ryan Braun, Eric Thames, Lorenzo Cain, Christian Yelich, Domingo Santana, and Keon Broxton, all project as 1B/OF types, but there are only four spots to go around.  Depth is a good thing, but lack of playing time could be an issue.  Further, the starting rotation leaves much to be desired, especially with presumed #1 Jimmy Nelson out until July.  With the loss of Lance Lynn, the Cardinals’ rotation also lacks depth and will be depending on rebound years from Michael Wacha and Adam Wainwright.  When you compare those starters to the rotation in Chicago (Darvish / Lester / Hendricks / Quintana / Chatwood), it’s clear who is in the best shape.  And we haven’t even talked about their still loaded offense….

3. Battle for the Basement

Last season the Reds and Pirates combined for 181 losses, firmly cementing them in the basement of the division.  Pittsburgh had a seven game age on Cincinnati, but looks intent on sinking lower in 2018.  A tumultuous offseason saw them trade away the face of the franchise Andrew McCutchen to San Francisco and staff ace Gerrit Cole to Houston, fans start a petition to force the removal of ownership, and threats that other players (Josh Harrison, Francisco Cervelli, etc.) might be next.  The Pirates will be depending on a lot of former top prospects to finally make good on their promise (Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, Gregory Polanco, Starling Marte) but things look bleak.  Cincinnati’s winter saw them lose long time SS Zack Cozart and resist the urge to bring in anybody of note, meaning a very young rotation will try to lead a promising but inexperienced lineup.  But hey – they have Votto, so advantage Cincy.

Interesting Stat

230

Between Opening Day 2017 and June 21st, Kyle Schwarber appeared in 64 games for the Cubs, and was really bad.  His line of .171 / .295 / .378 / .673 (with 12 HR and a -0.089 WPA) earned him a demotion to the minors to figure things out.  Well, whatever he did seemed to work, because in 65 appearances from July 6th to the end of the season Schwarber’s line was .255 / .338 / .565 / .903 (with 18 HR and a 0.226 WPA), an OPS improvement of 230 points.  From Opening Day to June 21st the Cubs went 36-35 and sat 1.5 games back in the Central, only to go 50-28 after Schwarber was recalled.  With Milwaukee and St .Louis both poised to be better, the Cubs need a much better start from Schwarber in 2018.

Who Should Win

Chicago

Who Will Win

Find out in my season prediction column at the end of March

2018 Division Previews – National League West

It’s that time of year again, time for 500 Level Fan to start embarrassing myself with futile, sad, and mind-blowingly awful predictions.  Before we get to my annual predictions, let’s go division by division to get a glimpse of what is in store for baseball fans in 2018.  These preview posts should be seen as a division primer, so we can get to know the best players and teams, along with some interesting storylines, in each.  These won’t have my actual predicted order of finish – just a quick snapshot.  The predictions come later.

We’ll begin today with the NL West.

Defending Champion

Los Angeles Dodgers

Past Five Champions

2017 – Los Angeles

2016 – Los Angeles

2015 – Los Angeles

2014 – Los Angeles

2013 – Los Angeles

Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 94.6

Best Player

Nolan Arenado, Colorado Rockies

There is very little separating Arenado and Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt.  Both are supreme talents who put up eerily similar numbers in 2017 (check it out: Arenado 37 HR, 130 RBI, .959 OPS, 7.2 WAR; Goldschmidt 36 HR, 120 RBI, .966 OPS, 5.8 WAR).  Both led their respective teams to relatively surprising playoff positions. Both won a Gold Glove award for exceptional defensive play.  The nod here goes to Arenado because he plays a premium position and he plays it incredibly well.  No matter the defensive metric, Arenado is ranked right near the top of the game.  He scores a 2.3 in Baseball Reference’s dWAR (6th overall), a 9.0 in Fangraphs’ Def (20th overall), and a 6.7 in UZR (15th overall).  Combine that with his bat and you have a perennial MVP candidate.

Honourable Mention: Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks,; Justin Turner, Dodgers

Best Pitcher

Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers

Another year, another dominant performance by Kershaw.  He led the NL with a 2.31 ERA, 18 wins, a 180 ERA+, and a 6.73 K/BB ratio, was second with a 0.95 WHIP,  and eclipsed the 200 strikeout plateau for the seventh time in his career.  To top it all off, he finally got the monkey off his back by delivering in the playoffs, leading the Dodgers to the World Series for the first time since 1988.  It wasn’t all roses for him, however.  For the second straight year injuries limited him (he missed all of August), and despite his dominant performance in relief in Game 7, the Dodgers lost to Houston.  With redemption on his mind (not to mention the possibility of opting out of his contract) Kershaw could be in line for a historic 2018.

Honourable Mention: Zack Greinke, Diamondbacks; Madison Bumgarner, Giants

Three Storylines For 2018

1. Can Los Angeles Recover?

Since 1923 the World Series has lasted the full seven games 37 times.  Only six times in baseball history has a team rebounded from losing Game 7 to win the World Series the following year, and only once has it happened since 1961 (the 2015 Kansas City Royals).  Last year the Dodgers had a 4-0 lead in Game 5, Clayton Kershaw on the mound, and the prospect of going to LA with a 3-2 lead.  But it all slipped away.  Now they have to figure out a way to get the taste of losing out of their mouths, and try to do what the Royals did a few years ago.  With a rotation that might be questionable after Kershaw (no more Darvish), and a bullpen now without Brandon Morrow, the Dodgers might have a tougher time holding off the revamped Giants and still loaded D-Backs and Rockies.  Their lineup is one of the deepest and most talented in the game, but how much does 2017 stick in their minds?

2. Back to the Future in San Fran

2017 was a year from Hell for San Francisco.  They were decimated by injuries (Bumgarner, Pence, Posey, Panik, Belt, Melancon), and underperformance, all of which led to a 98 loss season, tied for the second highest number of losses in franchise history.  But instead of blowing it all up, the Giants revamped in a big way by bringing in Austin Jackson, Tony Watson, and the faces of two other franchises: long-time Pirate Andrew McCutchen and long-time Ray Evan Longoria.  On the surface it seems odd for a terrible and old team to bring in four guys in the latter stages of their careers (the average age of the new guys is about 32).  But it offers a glimpse into the mindset of SF’s front office that last year was more of a fluke than a trend.  A full return to health by their core plus the acquisition of two former studs should make the Giants competitive in the West once again.

3. Who Comes Second?

On paper, the Dodgers remain the class of the division, but there is the potential for a real battle for second place.  Last year the NL West produced both Wild Card teams so the runner-up slot could mean a postseason appearance.  Arizona claimed that position last year, and will enter 2018 with a great rotation but without slugger J.D. Martinez.  Colorado added Wade Davis and Bryan Shaw to their bullpen, but questions exist (as always) about the rotation.  The Giants should be better, and though the Padres may be a year or two away, their stocked farm system and the addition of Eric Hosmer make them a potential sleeper candidate.  Buckle up!

Interesting Stat

152 and 159

Coors Field has always been a paradise for hitters with the thin air of Colorado inflating the stats of Rockies players at home.  That was more evident than ever last year.  Colorado scored 152 more runs at home than on the road (488 to 336) and posted an OPS 159 points higher at home (.862 to .703) the biggest home/road splits in all of baseball.  While their pitching staff also experienced huge splits (4.93 home ERA to 4.09 road ERA;  .273 home BAA to .255 road BAA) the overall spread does not break even.  Essentially at home the Rockies have the best offense in baseball with a bottom-5 pitching staff, while on the road they are middle-of-the-pack in both.  Last season the Rockies were forced to play on the road in the Wild Card game and lost.  Unless they somehow win the division ahead of LA, a 2018 playoff spot will bring more road games.  They will need to narrow those home/road splits in order to stand a chance to progress.

Who Should Win

Los Angeles

Who Will Win

Find out in my season prediction column at the end of March.

A View From the Cheap Seats