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TGS MLB PREVIEW: PLAY BALL!  2019 AL "FUTURES" TO WATCH!

      by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor and Daniel M. Gray, TGS MLB Consultant

    Believe it or not, baseball season has begun! It was just two games in Japan, pushed up a week from the normal opening day, featuring the A’s and Mariners; the rest of the “bigs” commence action on Thursday.

    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 total wins) recommendations, with the posted win totals included for every team.  And remember that beginning March 28, 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.   
 
   First, a look at the American League.   As always, thanks to TGS Baseball Consultant Daniel M. Gray for his contributions. 
   
    Play ball!
   
    AL EAST: BEST BET...While some of our scouts were watching the Baltimore Orioles (59½) this March in Sarasota, they commented how hard it was to tell between the AA, AAA, and Major Leaguers sprinkled throughout the roster.  Such is life for a team that plummeted to a 47-115 mark last season.  Not even Buck Showalter, who mostly got the Birds punching above their weight during his 8-year tenure in the dugout, could salvage respectability; Showalter and former GM Dan Duquette might be relieved their contracts weren’t renewed.  What is left behind is a collection of odds and sods for new skipper Brandon Hyde, who will try to find some recipe among the recent minor leaguers, over-the-hill vets, and career backups on the roster.  Nowhere to go but up for a pitching staff whose 5.13 ERA was the worst in the bigs...but we suppose it theoretically could get worse.  On the field, beyond 2B Jonathan Villar, a potential All-Star, there’s not much else to recommend.  Improving 13 wins appears a task far beyond these O’s, so it’s another “under” for us at Camden Yards, as we feel badly for Jim Palmer trying to make it sound interesting for fans of Orioles TV on MASN.
   
    OTHERS: At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of value in the price on the  Tampa Bay Rays (84½); then again, it’s easy to forget these guys won 90 games last season.  The revolutionary approach to the starting rotation, when, on nights Cy Young winner Blake Snell didn’t start, manager Kevin Cash was likely to go with a bullpen-by-committee approach, by us was the stuff of genius and perhaps the key to small market franchises re-inventing themselves into contenders (if they do it as well as Tampa Bay did last season, that is).  Aside from the nights when Snell and offseason addition Charlie Morton get the ball from Cash, the Rays likely go the same route this season.  Note the 3.50 team ERA, third best in the bigs, after Cash began his use of “openers” in the rotation in late May.  There remain questions with the offense, though LF Tommy Pham flashed real star potential after his deadline addition from St. Louis, and Avisail Garcia, over from the Chisox, should provide more consistent pop from the DH spot.  We remain bullish on Tampa Bay; it’s an “over’ for us at the Trop, and can’t wait to hear one of our favorites, DeWayne Staats, describe the action on Fox Sports Sun.
   
    All we need to cause ESPN to blow a circuit is for Zion Williamson to announce he’s giving up hoops and instead signing with the New York Yankees (96½); we’d hear nothing but Zion and pinstripe talk 24 hours every day!  Of course, we’re joking about Zion changing sports, but the Yankee overhype is about to commence once more.  Last year, 100 wins were not enough to overtake the Red Sox, but getting above the mid-90s in wins in 2019 might be problematic due to some durability questions in the rotation, beginning with aging CC Sabathia, who has already announced this will be his final campaign, while ex-Mariner James Paxton has a history of injury problems and has never pitched more than the 160 innings he hurled last season.  Recent signee Gio Gonzalez could prove of better use.  In the field, SS Didi Gregorius might be out until the All-Star break with an elbow injury.  The Yanks will still mash aplenty with Aaron Hicks and Giancarlo Stanton, but if Aaron Boone is forced to mix-and-match more than he would like in his rotation, the Yanks might not get to their lights-out bullpen as often to shut the door.  The Pinstripes will still be very good, but we’re just not sure about 97 wins good; look “under” in the Bronx.
   
    Some have maintained that last year’s Boston Red Sox (94½) were one of the best teams in decades.  In retrospect, we wouldn’t argue, as 2018 was a marvelous intersection of pitching, hitting, defense, baserunning, you name it.  So why are the Bosox expected to drop almost 14 wins from last year’s 108 and a World Series title?  Beats us, because we think Boston still looks plenty good.  About the only significant question is replacing closer Craig Kimbrel, who dominated a year ago.  If the pen becomes a problem, GM Dave Dombrowski will not sit on his hands, as firemen (especially from non-contenders) are often available well before the deadline.  And, besides, Ryan Brasier was so good as a set-up man that a switch to the closer role could go smoothly.  Meanwhile, lefty ace Chris Sale is happy as a lark after signing a $150 million extension, Mookie Betts could well earn back-to-back MVPs, and J.D. Martinez proved a better fit than could have been dreamed at Fenway Park after leading the bigs with 130 RBI.  Hey, what’s not to like?  “Over” again at Fenway Park.
   
    Where the Toronto Blue Jays (74½) fit into this East mix is anyone’s guess.  The second stint for John Gibbons in the dugout featured a couple of ALCS appearances, but with the rebuild underway, Gibbons bowed out after last season, and now it’s Charlie Montoyo’s turn to steer the ship.  The organization is building around the budding superstar that is 3B Vlad Guerrero, Jr., though we’ll have to wait a bit to see Vladdy Jr., who begins the season on the DL due to a strained oblique.  Before the end of April, Vlad Jr.  likely gets the call, but it’s going to be asking a lot for him to carry the load, even if he shined so brightly a year ago in AA and AAA.  There are some other interesting pieces on the roster, but for the Jays we think it all comes down to keeping the rotation healthy; 1-2 starters Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez are more than able, but both barely pitched 100 innings a year ago and have had recurring durability issues, as has ex-Angel Matt Shoemaker, added in the offseason.  Beyond not being sure how good Guerrero might be in his rookie year, questions in the rotation make Toronto hard to peg.  We’ll simply pass at Rogers Centre while looking forward to Buck Martinez and his shock of now-grey hair describe the Vlad Jr. phenomenon on Rogers Sportsnet.
   
  
  AL CENTRAL:
BEST BET...Sometimes the best hints for an upcoming season can be found in the preceding September.  That’s when the Kansas City Royals (69½) emerged as a capable spoiler last year after a mostly hideous campaign that for a time rivaled the Orioles as MLB’s worst.  But there is good news; importantly, remember that  KC competes in the forgiving AL Central, with one-third of its games to be played against the beatable Twins, Tigers, and Chisox.  There’s a start.  Further, adding speedburning CF Billy Hamilton from the Reds gives the Royals three of the top eight base stealers (along with 2B Whit Merrifield & SS Adalberto Mondesi) from last season.  The potential disaster of losing C Salvador Perez (Tommy John surgery in spring) was saved by GM Dayton Moore’s clever addition of ex-Angel Martin Maldonado, who should provide a serviceable option behind the plate.  Young hurlers Brad Keller and Jakob Junis bring a lot of heat and promise to the top of the rotation that could prove acceptable as long as vets Danny Duffy and Ian Kennedy stay healthy and reprise some of their better work from the past.  No one is expecting a playoff berth, but getting to 70 wins in this division is hardly mission impossible; it’s an “over” for us at the Big K, where we’re due to visit sometime this season.
   
    OTHERS: It wasn’t the sort of news a struggling team needs to hear.  But after the Detroit Tigers (69) stumbled in at 64-98 a year ago, and things became so desultory that TV announcers Mario Impemba and Rod Allen got into a fight (both eventually dismissed, good news that the excellent Impemba quickly found work doing radio play-by-play for the Bosox;  Allen was never one of our favorites in the analyst chair, but we digress), the last thing Ron Gardenhire needed was for his projected staff ace to go down for the count on the eve of the season. Yet, so it goes in Detroit after word last week that Michael Fulmer was done for 2019 with Tommy John surgery, the latest misfortune for the 2016 AL Rookie of the Year.  Jordan Zimmerman, the Tigers’ last significant FA addition a couple of years ago, has resembled a batting tee for hitters and has become the opening-day starter almost by default.  The Tigers hope that affordable vet FA signees Matt Moore and Tyson Ross can at least eat some innings in the rotation.  Otherwise, it’s the middle of an extended rebuild in Motown, where the search for a couple of more foundational pieces like RF Nick Castellanos continues.  Not too much to get excited about at Comerica Park, where it’s another “under” for us.  
   
    Given the recent condition of the Central, and considering they played almost half of their games within this weak division, the Cleveland Indians (91) should have done a bit better (a lot better?) than their 91-71 mark last season.  Which is why we weren’t terribly surprised when the Astros swept out the Tribe in the ALDS.  Still, 91 wins should be a floor, not a ceiling, especially with perhaps the AL’s best rotation, anchored by two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber.  Along with Carlos Carrasco and last year’s breakout starter, Trevor Bauer, plus long-haired Mike Clevinger, Terry Francona had four starters record more than 200 strikeouts.  What the Tigers would do for just one of these guys!  There was some shuffling in the bullpen during the offseason, when Cody Allen and Andrew Miller were allowed to walk, but ex-Padre Brad Hand is a proven closer.   There was a bit of a scare this past weekend at Goodyear when star 3B Jose Ramirez fouled a ball off his knee and had to be carted off; mind you, SS Francisco Lindor and 2B Jason Kipnis were already scheduled to open the season on the DL (though both likely reactivated in April).  We’ll see if Ramirez joins them.  At worst, that might mean a slower start for the Tribe, who should be able to regain complete command of the Central by the All-Star break.  Almost by default, but we have to look “over” in Cleveland. 
   
    What has happened to the solid fundamentals that were not long ago the signature of the Minnesota Twins (84)?  Certainly not a year ago, prompting some major changes, including manager Paul Molitor, replaced by Rocco Baldelli.  For the first time in almost a generation, Joe Mauer (now retired) also isn’t part of the Minnesota mix.  It looks like the Twins are simply going to try to bash their way back to playoffs, which they made as a wild card in 2017.  Main offseason additions include the big bats of DH Nelson Cruz and 1B C.J. Cron, and with hope that FA 2B Jonathon Schoop reprises his 2017 All-Star form in Baltimore rather than the flop he was after the trade deadline in Milwaukee last summer.  But CF Byron Buxton still struggles more than he should to make contact at the plate, while 3B Miguel Sano is always a threat to disrupt with his penchant for getting into off-field trouble.  Meanwhile, aside from Jose Berrios and maybe Kyle Gibson at the top, Baldelli only seems to have high-risk options with his rotation.  We sure don’t think the Twins rate 14-15 wins better than the Royals and will look “under” at Target Field, though as always will also be interested in what Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven have to say on Fox Sports North.
   
    We were a bit surprised to see the Chicago White Sox (74) throw their hats into the ring in the bidding for top FAs Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.  The Chisox didn’t land either, but their long-suffering fans on the South Side and elsewhere could take to heart those developments as statements of intent from a front office that is probably as tired as the support base of the incessant mediocrity in recent years.  Now, is the rebuild really over?  After winning just 62 games last year, we’re not prepared to go there just yet with the Pale Hose, but ballyhooed OF prospect Eloy Jimenez has an arrival date sometime this spring; speaking of intent, how about signing Jimenez for more than twice as much ($43 mill over six years!) as the Chisox have ever yet paid a player to perform in the bigs?  With the touted Jimenez arriving soon, and SS Tim Anderson, 2B Yoan Moncada, and DH Jose Abreu already in place, there is some reason for optimism. What continues to threaten undermining the operation is pitching, with former top prospect Lucas Giolito highly erratic, top prospect Michael Kopech out with Tommy John surgery, and a supposed ace, Carlos Rodon, who made just 20 starts last season.  The Pale Hose are excited about their newly-signed closer, ex-Royal Kelvin Herrera, but can they get to him with a lead often enough?  We see some upside here, but not sure about a 12-win jump; it’s a “pass” for us at Guaranteed Rate Field, the latest in an uninspiring succession of stadium names for the once “new” Comiskey Park, now into its 30th season (really!).


    AL WEST: BEST BET...Already with a two-loss handicap after being swept in Japan by the Mariners in what amounted to an Ichiro farewell tour, the Oakland A’s (83½) are back in the US to begin their quest for a return to the playoffs after qualifying as the biggest surprise of MLB in 2018.  The Raiders seemed a more likely playoff team a year ago than the A’s, but a collection of big bats and a deep bullpen allowed Bob Melvin to squeeze out 97 wins and a wild card.  We’re not sure Oakland reaches those heights in 2019, but the floor for the A’s should be in the mid 80s, at least as long as underappreciated DH Khris Davis continues to bang out the homers (does  anyone realize that Davis has hit 40 or more dingers each of the last three years?).  An intriguing addition is ex-Ranger Jurickson Profar, a former No. 1 overall MLB prospect who is being plugged in at 2B.  But it was all about the bullpen last summer for Melvin, with ex-Nat Blake Treinen becoming an elite closer with several bridges in front of him, all a necessity, as the starters rarely get past five innings.  An amazingly constant supply of serviceable arms from AA and AAA, however, continue to fill in as needed with the annual injuries in the rotation, which pulled Edwin Jackson off the scrap heap with great results midway last season (Jackson remains unsigned late in March).  The A’s usually cobble it together, part of the ongoing Billy Beane legacy.  We’re looking “over” at the Coliseum.
   
    OTHERS: Well, they’re happy as can be in Orange County and singing their favorite Disney tunes now that Mike Trout has signed a 12-year extension for Cristiano Ronaldo-type money, almost assuring that he’ll finish his career with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (82½).  But Halo fans must be reminded this is real baseball, not rotisserie, and while Trout’s talents are enormous as he appears bound for Cooperstown, it’s worth noting that, as good as he has been, he has never yet been on an Angels team that won a playoff game.  Should Arte Moreno have maybe spent that money on numerous players who instead might help the Halos win their first postseason game in what is now a decade?  It will also take some getting used to not seeing Mike Scioscia in the dugout for the first time in 20 years; Scioscia quietly retired after last season, at odds with the organization’s new commitment to analytics, which new manager Brad Ausmus is reportedly embracing.  The pitching staff still has a jerry-rigged look; Matt Harvey’s star has faded as he gets another shot, this time in Anaheim, along with journeyman Trevor Cahill, who appear a pair of risky anchors in the rotation alongside injury-prone Andrew Heaney.  Trout, Justin Upton, Kole Calhoun, and even a past sell-by date Albert Pujols can generate runs, and Shohei Otani is slated to concentrate on DH and not pitch this season, though he opens on the DL.  Were this rotisserie baseball, we’d be jumping for joy to have Trout, Upton, and others on our team, but in the real world, the best of Trout has been carrying too much of a burden and needs more help; it’s an “under” for us at the Big A.
   
    With some dubious competition in the division, the Houston Astros (96½) should be able to clear this mid-90s win total after soaring to 103 wins a year ago.  In the end, it wasn’t enough to successfully defend their 2017 World Series crown.  But keep in mind how Houston piled up all of those Ws even with 2B Jose Altuve and SS Carlos Correa battling injuries last summer.  The Astros lost a few pieces in the offseason, especially in their rotation, but compensated by adding LF Michael Brantley from Cleveland and C Robinson Chirinos from Texas.  If there are questions, they might be regarding a staff that could have some issues beyond the dominant 1-2 starters Justin Verlander (just re-inked to a pricey extension) and Gerrit Cole, with the well-traveled Wade Miley likely to be one of those plugged in by A.J.  Hinch.  But if some of the pitching prospects are as good as advertised and are ready to deliver, the beat should go on in Houston.  It’s a definite “over” for us at Minute Maid Park.
   
    Hey, they’re already 2-0!  We’re talking about the Seattle Mariners (71½), who beat the A’s twice in Japan last week as all paid a salute to Ichiro, who retired after the brief series.  But the “Ichiro bump” was good for only two games.  Now the Mariners must deal with the reality of the rest of their season with a roster that went through a massive revamp.  Seattle moved almost every player who could generate interest (Robinson Cano, Jean Segura, Nelson Cruz, Mike Zunino, James Paxton, Edwin Diaz, Alex Colome) and might have a lineup with as many as six new starters, as GM Jerry Dipoto begins the rebuild.  So even the handful of vets (3B-DH Edwin Encarnacion, OF Jay Bruce, SS Tim Beckman) who were added are likely to be used as trade bait at or before the deadline.  Moreover, the staff is a mystery, hoping Japanese import Yusei Kikuchi can handle the top of a rotation that is also counting on journeymen like Mike Leake and Wade LeBlanc, while King Felix is a shell of his former dominant self.  They’re preparing for the worst in Seattle, and so are we; it’s an “under” for us at Safeco Field...but the Mariners are 2-0! 
   
    It will take some getting used to seeing a Texas Rangers (71½) lineup without Adrian Beltre, who retired in the offseason en route to Cooperstown.  Unlike the Mariners, however, we can envision the Rangers doing some things very well, like hitting homers and scoring runs.  In LF Joey Gallo, Texas has the modern-day equivalent of Dave Kingman, swinging for the downs every at-bat; well over half of Gallo’s at bats resulted in a strikeout, a walk, or a homer last season!  Joining Gallo in the power brigade is RF Nomar Mazara, while 2B Roughned Odor has turned into a dangerous at-bat.  Adding Asdrubal Cabrera to take the place of Beltre at 3B was a shrewd move.  But someone has to pitch, and new manager Chris Woodward might be looking for volunteers in a rotation full of stop-gaps and hurlers on their third or fourth chances.  Closer Jose Leclerc might be a budding star in the bullpen, but how often can his set-up men deliver him a lead?  It’s going to be a tag-team adventure in the Rangers bullpen.  But Texas can score, which causes us to pause and simply pass at Globe Life Park, enjoying its last hurrah in 2019, as the new Globe Life (hopefully with the same food concessions and the 24-inch “Boomstick” hot dog that comes in its own carrying case!) opens across the street in 2020.




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