Weekly Hit Ground Ball: The Other Teams

At this time of the year it’s traditional to publish predictions of how the MLB season is going to pan out.

If you asked most fans which ten teams are going to make the playoffs right now, you’re likely to find a lot of similarities.

In the American League, Houston, Boston, New York and Cleveland all look strong favourites, with the LA Angels the trendy pick for the second Wild Card.

In the National League, LA Dodgers, Chicago and Washington are the probable division winners and you can then take your pick from a group of teams to meet in the Wild Card game.

So, rather than focus on the potential division winners, we’ll look at another team of interest in each division.

AL West

Let’s start in the division of the reigning World Series champions with the team that many are awarding the ‘won the off-season’ prize to.

What exactly should we expect from the LA Angels this year? Any team with Mike Trout in it has a chance and they’ve made some good additions, but have they made a big leap ahead or a more modest improvement?

Part of that will be determined by their headline acquisition, Japanese two-way talent Shohei Ohtani. Every team wanted him and it was a coup for the Angels to win his signature. An adjustment period is to be expected and that leads us to Ohtani’s Spring Training, which politely can be described as disappointing. Despite the ever-present caveat this time of year that ‘it’s only Spring Training’, were he not a highly touted player from Japan it’s possible the Angels would have considered sending him to Triple-A given how he has performed.

That’s not a viable option and so he’s going to need to develop his craft in the Majors. Ordinarily it would be fine for Ohtani to take some lumps here and there as he puts together an encouraging debut season to build on, and in isolation that remains the case. The problem with that for the Angels is the rest of their starting rotation comes with plenty of question marks. If Ohtani isn’t really good, will the additions of Ian Kinsler, Zack Cosart and renewing with Justin Upton alone make them more than a potential second Wild Card?

AL Central

The Minnesota Twins proved last year that you can’t always count a team out based on previous form. Few if any picked the Twins to make the play-offs, yet some good performances and other teams not meeting expectations for various reasons meant that the Twins could look around, see no one else was really making a claim for the second Wild Card and take it for themselves.

They did that with no expectations on their shoulders, other than the expectation from others that at some point someone else would overtake them. Now the expectations have changed. That’s not to say they are favourites, but they’ve got something to live up to.

Although they’ve not exactly become big spenders, you can’t accuse the Twins of standing still and failing to add to their roster.

They started with their bullpen, adding Addison Russell and Fernando Rodney, and then took advantage of the slow-moving free agent market by picking up Logan Morrison for their batting lineup and two good starting pitchers in Jake Odorizzi and Lance Lynn. On the negative side, Ervin Satana will miss at least the first month of the season due to a finger injury and shortstop Jorge Polanco will serve an 80-game drug suspension.

The Twins are no juggernaut, yet they are a good team and it shouldn’t be overlooked that they’ll play 57 games combined against the rebuilding Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals. Few seem to be picking them for a Wild Card, but I wouldn’t be so quick to count them out.

AL East

The 2018 AL East looks set to be a heavyweight fight between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. We’ve been there before a few times.

The other three teams have all taken turns at upsetting the order in recent years. I wouldn’t say any had a great chance at doing that this time around, yet if I had to pick a team that would be worth watching it would be the Toronto Blue Jays.

The Edwin Encarnacion-Jose Bautista Blue Jays have gone, with neither player now with the club and fellow star Josh Donaldson heading for free agency at the end of the 2018 season. Nothing lasts forever. Toronto had a really good team there for a few years but many of the leading players are now either gone, past their best or potentially heading towards an exit.

That makes the Blue Jays’ season all the more intriguing. Are they going to slip back again or do they have one last hurrah in them?

They haven’t made any impressive additions to their roster: tinkering with the bullpen, adding a couple of former Cardinals in Randall Grichuk and Aledmys Garcia, and signing veteran Curtis Granderson. They do still have good players on the roster though and will look even better if Aaron Sanchez’s blister issues can be a thing of the past. If not, June and July could be dominated by rumours of where Donaldson will be traded to.

NL East

Picking ‘another team’ from the NL East is a difficult task. The Washington Nationals were a country mile ahead of the rest of their division last year and that doesn’t look like changing in 2018.  The Miami Marlins finished second last year – yes, that surprised me too when I checked – but we all know what’s happened there over the off-season (fire sale number 4 or 5, it’s hard to keep count).

So, you’ve got the young talent of the Atlanta Braves, the young talent and two good free agent additions in the Philadelphia Phillies and the New York Mets.  Let’s go with the latter.

The period from mid-2015 to mid-2016 was a lot of fun for the Mets. They went to a World Series in October 2015 and then saw the Yankees trading away players the following summer.  It looked like the city was the Mets’s.

Well that didn’t last very long, did it? The Yankees, in a way that only the Yankees could, rapidly turned a rebuild into a strong Major League roster and loaded farm system.  The Mets lost the 2016 NL Wild Card game and then fell apart in 2017.

Frustratingly for their fans, they haven’t responded aggressively to this turn of events.  Jay Bruce and Todd Frazier are solid, experienced players, but they’re not going to convince a fan base that a team that lost 92 games last year is going to explode back into life.

As ever with these Mets, it all comes down to the starting rotation. If Syndergaard, deGrom, Harvey and Matz can make 100+ starts, and more starts than not reflecting their talent, then they’ll be a Wild Card threat. Mets fans have seen enough to be excited whilst also not being willing to bet their own money on it happening.

NL Central

Just as the Twins sprang a surprise in the AL Central, the Milwaukee Brewers were more competitive than most predicted in the NL Central last season.

Just as the Twins, the Brewers now have some expectations to live up to and, just as the Twins, they’ve not sat back and let the pack pass them.  However, they haven’t made the depth of signings as others and that may be their undoing, especially with Jimmy Nelson working his way back from shoulder surgery.

Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich are an excellent pair of signings to add to the outfield and the top of their batting order. It’s still not completely clear how the roster will shake out from there, with the original plan for Ryan Braun to play some first base already looking like an experiment too far.

It’s far from the worst problem to have as the outfield recruits offer plenty of reason to be excited for the Brew Crew, yet you get the sense that having started to push chips into the middle of the table, Milwaukee might have been better off – if not quite going all in – at least reaching for another starting pitcher to add to the group.

Within their division, you could argue they haven’t given up much to the St Louis Cardinals as they’ve also added an outfielder from the Marlins (Marcell Ozuna) but little else. Whether that’s going to be enough to beat others to a Wild Card remains to be seen.

NL West

I started planning this column in the middle of the week and had already decided to pick the San Francisco Giants for this spot.

Little did I know that the last few days would add more uncertainty to the Giants’ season.

Looking at 2017 in isolation you could say that everything fell apart for San Francisco and that wouldn’t be far from the truth.  What that disguises somewhat is that things started going awry in the second half of 2016. There was no ‘even year’ World Series that time around, they lost 11 of 13 after the All-Star break, and went 30-42 in total, to go from a 6.5 game lead at the top of the West to finishing four games behind the Dodgers.

Over the current off-season there was a clear decision to give it one last go with the Posey-Bumgarner-Crawford team and so trades were made to bring in experienced campaigners Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen.  Reliever Tony Watson was also signed as a free agent to add a quality lefty to the mix, hopefully behind last year’s big recruit Mark Melcancon if he’s fully recovered from forearm surgery.

But then it was announced that Jeff Samrdzija will miss several weeks with a strained pectoral injury and Madison Bumgarner took a line drive back on his left hand that fractured his little finger and could keep him out for the best part of two months.  Their Opening Day four-man rotation will consist of Johnny Cueto followed by Ty Blach, Chris Stratton and Derek Holland, which is a clear drop-off from what might have been.

The two starters shouldn’t have any lingering issues from their ailments so if the team can hold steady then they could build into the season and make a Wild Card run in the second half.  However, there’s an increased injury risk with a veteran team and their chances will depend on keeping their best players on the field, something that hasn’t started well.

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