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PLAY BALL!  TGS 2022 MLB SEASON WINS TO WATCH!

by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
 
It's that time again!  One of our favorite editorial pieces each spring is our forecast of  MLB season wins, which we take great joy in presenting this April as the season is set to commence with a sense of normalcy later this week for the first time in a few years.  A recent trip down to the Cactus League in Arizona never felt so good!

Featured season-win recommendations are listed below, with the win number noted next to each team mentioned. MLB regular-season action starts later this week...be on the lookout for TGS MLB recommendations, which will once again appear as part of Bruce's Daily Selections.  Play ball!

                                               AMERICAN LEAGUE

We saw lots of "old Indians" fans down in Arizona for spring training a few weeks ago and can say with certainty that none of them had anything good to say about the new name for their team, as we also could hardly find anyone wearing anything noting the Cleveland Guardians (75.5) even existed.  The Indians and Tribe names are going to die hard with the supporters, many of whom mounting campaigns to restore the old name, though they’re also as chuffed at the drab new label and the amateurish logo that looks like it might have been imagined by grade-schoolers.  If we thought the fans didn’t like the Guardians' name, wait until the games begin as many project one of the biggest drops in the AL after Cleveland sunk beneath .500 last season and was no-hit four times (though only three of those count as no-hitters; Tampa Bay’s gem was only in a 7-inning doubleheader game not recognized by Rob Manfred’s MLB).  Aside from the excellence of 3B Jose Ramirez (36 HR & 103 RBI in 2021) and DH Franmil Reyes (30 HR last season), we’re not excited about the offense, and wonder who is going to get on base in front of Ramirez & Reyes unless young CF Myles Straw makes progress.  Meanwhile, much of the starting rotation (Shane Bieber, Aaron Civale, and Zach Plesac) has a history of injuries, and while flamethrower Emmanuel Clase can be an exciting closer, we’re just not sure how often he’ll be in a position to take advantage.  It looks like Cleveland has avoided what could have been a major distraction involving Ramirez, who was into his contract year and subject of heated trade speculation in the Cactus League, with the Padres and Blue Jays reportedly serious suitors, but by agreeing with GM Mike Chernoff to re-up (very surprisingly so) on the eve of the opener this week at least removes what seemed a real likelihood of the biggest bat iin the lineup leaving town. No matter, there are still a lot of ways for this to go wrong in Cleveland, which is why we look “under” by the shores of Lake Erie. 

If any team had excuses for undershooting expectations a year ago, it was the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (84.5), who were without the one and only Mike Trout for most of last season, and 2019 Nats World Series hero Anthony Rendon for the  last half of the campaign.  After do-everything multi-tasker Shohei Otani sparked comparisons to Babe Ruth while rolling to an MVP in 2021, putting the “big three” together in the batting order while also adding in emerging power source Jared Walsh at 1B, and the makings of a ferocious lineup are easy to see.  Unfortunately, the MLB is not rotisserie baseball, and even with so much potential sock in the lineup, the Halos’ bigger problems last season had to do with their non-Shohei arms.  For all of GM Perry Minasian’s bluster, he didn’t do much to address the pitching staff in the offseason, with the big addition being high-risk ex-Met Noah Syndergaard, who has been active less the past couple of seasons than Zion Williamson has in the NBA, with myriad physical problems limiting him to just two innings pitched since 2019.  With FAs like Max Scherzer and Robbie Ray available in the marketplace during the offseason, Minasian could do no better than damaged-goods “Thor” and ex-Red Michael Lorenzen, who has spent most of his time in the bullpen the past few seasons, continuing what has been a so-far flawed Angels strategy of taking fliers on starters with upside such as recent Anaheim flame-out Dylan Bundy, Joe Maddon’s opening-day starter last April but demoted to the bullpen by midseason after recoding a 6.78 ERA in 14 starts, and now off to the Twins.  There is more than idle chatter in Orange County that Maddon could be on the hot seat as the Halos are now 13 years since their last playoff win, and no hint yet of Maddon’s Rays or Cubs magic, though by us the problems are more Minasian’s doing.  With pitching such a question mark, we can’t get too excited, so it’s an “under” for us at the Big A.

The Minnesota Twins (81.5) dropped off of the map a season ago, clearing the way for the White Sox to run away with the AL Central.  First-to-worst is never a good look, but because the Central  seems a pretty forgiving place outside of the South Side of Chicago, the chance for a quick recovery exists.  To be truthful we might not be highlighting the Twins had they not been able to steal ex-Astros SS Carlos Correa as a FA right out of the lockout; this might be just a one-year rental for Correa, who can opt out after 2022 and hit the market again, but in a  way it could also be a nice win-win for both sides, with Minnesota believing Correa could be key to a quick return to contention, and Correa willing to take a one-year gamble that his stock re-inflates for next year, or, perhaps,  he’ll enjoy Target Field so much that he’ll want to remain.  Stay tuned.   Regardless, it was a potential difference-maker of a move for 2022 by GM Thad Levine, who also made what looks a shrewd addition in dealing with the Reds for Sonny Gray, who could turn into the anchor for a rotation in the sort of  undersized market in which he has always felt most comfortable.  There is also excitement surrounding young right-hander Joe "Invisiball" Ryan, who gets the opening-day start, thouugh Levine and skipper Rocco Baldelli could also use roster gambles like Dylan Bundy and Chris Archer to pay off for the rotation to legitimately upgrade.  There should be enough offense, especially if Correa (still only 27) rediscovers his best Houston form, with CF Byron Buxton already a star, and there are hopes for more power numbers from 1B/DH Miguel Sano (another 30 homers last year)  if he can keep his weight under 300 pounds.  Though challenging the Pale Hose looks to be a stretch, dealing with the others in the Central hardly appears a daunting task, so we go “over” in Minneapolis while looking forward to catching the excellent Dick Bremer describe the action on Bally Sports North. 

As a sort-of poor man’s AL version of the Giants, who are widely expected to come back to Earth after their shocking 2021 success, there are apparently similar non-believers in the Seattle Mariners (84.5) after they stunned the masses with 90 wins a year ago, staying in the AL wild card chase until the final day of the season.  Maybe the expanded 2022 playoffs will provide another ramp into the postseason, which the M’s haven’t experienced since the Sonics were still in town (2001, the longest such drought in MLB...sheesh!).   And Seattle was an improbablle winner last season, rendering run differential meaningless by finishing 18 games above .500 despite -51 in runs (really!). GM Jerry Dipoto certainly didn’t sit on his hands in the offseason,either, adding AL Cy Young winner lefty Robbie Ray from the Blue Jays while the division rival Angels were inking Noah Syndergaard, who’s hardly pitched in three years.  Not finished, Dipoto then swung a deal with the Reds for All-Star LF Jesse Winkler, who would figure to help a Mariners BA of only .226 a season ago.  Dipoto has also added new starters at 3B in Eugenio Suarez (who arrived from Cincy in the deal with Winkler)  and another 2021 All-Star in 2B Adam Frazier (Pittsbuirgh and San Diego last year), and there is palpable excitement for rookie CF Julio Rodriguez, considered one of the favorites in the AL Rookie of the Year race.  There is some concern out of the Cactus League that expected closer Ken Giles might have to go on the injured list due to a finger injury, but the bullpen was a surprising strength a year ago, and the rotation tantalizes if Ray produces as he did in Toronto, with holdovers Marco Gonzales and Chris Flexen having impressed in 2021. Most important, however, might be to simply retain the amazing esprit de corps that allowed the Mariners to rally for 11 wins in September alone to climb back into the playoff chase. The analytics crowd that downgraded Seattle last season cannot account for such intangibles, which we always seek; unless that disappears since last season ended, we’re looking “over” at T-Mobile Park. 

It’s almost a rite of passage in spring to downgrade the Tampa Bay Rays (90.5), who continue to defy the odds as they perform in the relative obscurity of St. Petersburg.  Where the location of the Trop is simply too inconvenient for the bulk of the Tampa Bay population that doesn’t want to drive over the bridges amid late afternoon thundershowers to watch baseball in a quirky dome, especially when they can stay at home and instead watch DeWayne Staats call the action on what they now call Bally Sports Sun. An easy solution to the ballpark dilemma is simply to find a way to get a new stadium built on the Tampa side of the bay, which also puts the Rays within easier reach of the Orlando area, and maybe that will become apparent to owner Stu Sternbeg and local officials who recently saw MLB scotch the propssed city-share plan with Montraal for later in the decade. Stay tuned.   In the meantime the Rays quietly reached 100 wins last season before the pitching faltered in the division round vs. the Bosox, but by us this roster remains vastly overlooked, with an underrated lineup that belted the third most homers in the AL and a durable bullpen that led  the bigs in innings pitched a year ago.   The offense has become adept at manufacturing runs with SS Wander Franco and LF Randy Arozarena as the catalysts, while young Shane McClahahan emerged as a rotation ace last season. If former Cy Young winner Corey Kluber bears any resemblance to his former self, and another youngster, Shane Baz, justifies the hype when he returns in May after having some bone chips removed from his elbow in March after teasing with a 2.03 ERA in three starts down the stretch last September, the pitching will once again be a strength, and there is a chance that Kevin Cash will have even more options if Tyler Glasnow returns after the All-Star break as he continues to rehab from last year’s Tommy John surgery.  Let’s also not forget 19 more games will be upcoming against the Orioles, who were outscored 150-69 by the Rays while losing 18 of those matchups a year ago.  We’ll see about the playoffs, but the Rays remain our pick to win the East...and tickets are available.  “Over” once again at the Trop. 


                                                NATIONAL LEAGUE


Things are looking up in Queens with the New York Mets (88.5) now boasting of real, live ownership since Steve Cohen purchased the team, and big names suddenly rediscovering the lure of the Big Apple from the NL side.  Cohen was also in a mood to spend in the offseason after the Mets collapsed down the stretch of a campaign in which they held the NL East lead for roughly three months; now the payroll is second only behind the Dodgers in MLB, while there’s also a new GM (Billy Eppler) and manager (Buck Showalter) in the fold.  A couple of potential problems surfaced in March, however, one very big one with ace Jacob de Grom’s availability  once again a big question mark after he didn’t pitch following the All-Star Game last summer due to forearm/elbow issues.  Now it’s a “shoulder reaction” that has him on the shelf with guesstimates from anywhere to one to three months or longer, which for the time being delays the big 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation with FA prize Max Scherzer, who was dealing with his own hamstring issues recently in Port Saint Lucie but likely to be ready for opening day.  Before adding Scherzer, Cohen had already opened the saddlebags to upgrade the offense with Starling Marte, Eduardo Escobar, and Mark Canha added to an already capable lineup (which can also use the new universal DH in the NL to provide a perfect outlet  at this stage of his career for Robinson Cano), and former A’s ace Chris Bassitt was added to the pitching mix in March.  Bassitt's presence lessens the chance that Showalter might end up scrambling at the back of the rotation if further injuries hit the staff, and even if the bullpen doesn’t look a strength out of the Grapefruit League, that can always be addressed before the trade deadline.  Since they’ve pulled back the win number beneath 90 following the de Grom news, however, there now looks a bit of value on the plus side...especially if de Grom can return and look like himself before the All-Star break.  We’re feeling a bit adventurous in the NL East and thinking “over” at Citi Field. 

Chalk it up as the “huh?” move of the offseason.  Respected manager Mike Shildt, who helped steward a furious September push by the St. Louis Cardinals (85.5) featuring a17-game win streak and a surge into one of the NL’s wild card slots, was abruptly forced to walk the plank after the wild card loss to the Dodgers, catching much of Cardinals Nation by surprise, with young (35!) bench coach Oliver Marmol, better versed in modern analytics, now assuming the reins.  Interestingly, as the Big Red tries to go new-school, there is a definite old-school vibe with the long-serving battery of Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina both signed on for one more shot at  the ring, and Albert Pujols returining for one more curtain call at Busch Stadium.  Shildt was able to jerry-rig a serviceable rotation around Wainwright after the All-Star break even as injuries limited the options, and getting a full season from the likes of Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, and Dakota Hudson could turn the rotation into a strength (though Flaherty could open the season on the injured list with recurring shoulder issues).   Meanwhile, the bullpen emerged down the stretch after Shildt adjusted the focus to sinker-ball pitchers who could throw strikes after a cascade of walks, and Marmol has hinted at a closer-by-committee approach that would include Giovanny Gallegos, who took over 9th inning duties during the long September win streak.  This is also a lineup with some pop featuring Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt (off a sizzling spring in Jupiter while batting .500!) and powerful LF Tyler O’Neill, who socked 34 homers in 2021 and also returns as one of the Redbirds’ two Gold Gloves in the outfield (CF Harrison Bader the other).  We’re thinking a lot has to go wrong for St Louis to land beneath 85.5, so we’ll look “over” by the beautiful Arch.

While we were a bit chuffed at the $6 for a small bottle of water watching the San Diego Padres (88.5)  in Peoria a couple of weeks ago, and thankful we were filling our tanks with gasoline rather than the Padres water (which would have run us about $500!), we also wonder about the fascination the masses have for San Diego, which is being listed roughly three wins higher than a Giants team that finished 28 games ahead of the Pads when the 2021 regular season concluded.   All of these projections with knowledge that the wondrous SS Fernando Tatis, Jr is down for perhaps the first half of the season as he rehabs a broken wrist.  Apparently the experts think last year’s pre-mid August version of the Padres is more the real deal than the one that closed the season in a 12-34 nosedive and got manager Jayce Tingler fired as San Diego tumbled beneath .500.  Bob Melvin has been recruited from the A’s to provide steadier leadership in the dugout, but we’re not in love with many of the parts, including 3B Manny Machado, whose stats teased but failed to deliver once again when most needed, only 31 RBIs from August into early October last year when the offense badly needed run production, and we wonder if costly sorts like 1B Eric Hosmer & RF Will Myers are on the downsides of their careers and capable of justifying their hefty expenditures.  Indeed, it might be up to  Machado to carry the offense until Tatis returns.  Meanwhile, Yu Darvish and Blake Snell were not dominant in Tingler’s 2021 rotation as many had predicted, though there is some cautious optimism surrounding Nick Martinez, slotted into the back of the rotation after recording 15 wins in Japan last season, while Mike Clevinger’s return from Tommy John surgery will be closely watched.   We suspect this 88.5 price is a bit optimistic and represents more of a ceiling for Padres wins this season   You’d need to go back more than a decade to 2010 to find a season where San Diego exceeded 88 wins, and we’re not sure it happens in 2022, either.  We like much of everything about America’s Finest City, but It’s still an “under” for us at Petco Park.

Rarely have we seen such a downgrade in win projections from the previous season as with the San Francisco Giants (85.5), suggesting there are still more than a few non-believers after last year's stunning and wholly unexpected 107-55 campaign. Seldom have we seen MLB projections blown so far out of the water, especially by a team that was pegged by most at the .500 level before last season. But manager Gabe Kapler had an idea that seemed by many to be picked up from old Strat-o-Matic baseball (at least some of my old Strat-o teams) and prioritizing homers above all else. The result was an NL-best and franchise-record 241 homers in which ten players hit 13 or more, and an MLB-record seventeen players with more than five homers, but no one more than 29. Everyone was in on the act, and we saw the Kapler approach in spring training down in Arizona a couple of weeks ago, as Giants batters up and down the order were looking to pull and drive everything; old-style Gene Mauch “little ball” this ain’t. It wasn’t just the homers (and their remarkable sequencing) last season, however, as Kapler also got surprising above-average work from his staff, which among other things allowed an MLB-low 151 homers, creating quite a dinger disparity. The concerns about what seems an inevitable regression in 2022 include the retirement of likely HOF-bound C Buster Posey, while a couple of the frequent 2021 heroes, 3B Evan Longoria and RF LaMonte Wade, Jr. likely open the season on the injured list, with 2B Tommy La Stella and 1B Brandon Belt also iffy for opening day. But there is genuine excitement regarding backstop heir apparent Joey Bart, and rotation ace Logan Webb (11-0, 2.20 ERA in his last 22 starts of 2021!) is generating a fair share of Cy Young buzz heading into the season. There were also plenty of options in Kapler’s bullpen last summer, so the relief corps hardly seems a weakness. While getting to 107 wins like a year ago might be a chore, getting to 87 or so shouldn’t be. Thus, we look “over” at Oracle Park while planning to tune into the Giants Roundtable on blowtorch 680 KNBR after the home games,  when the incomparable Jon Miller and Dave Flemming from the radio side like to yuk it up with Duane Kuiper (happy to report back in the fold) and Mike Krukow from TV for some good old-fashioned baseball banter.

That World Series win from three years ago feels more like three decades ago these days for the Washington Nationals (71.5), who have been justifiably downgraded.  Even so, that win number  suggests a 6-7 game improvement from last season’s disastrous 65-97, which might be a bit ambitious.  While the Lerners remain patient, GM Mike Rizzo is now more about playing the long game, not looking for quick fixes in the offseason, rather letting the young roster ferment.  What isn’t apparent, however, is if there is anyone capable of carrying the offense other than Juan Soto (29 HR and 95 RBI last year), who was often pitched around in 2021 as opposing pitchers didn’t really fear anyone else in the lineup, though ex-Pirates 1B Josh Bell was fairly productive after a horrendous April.  (Soto, by the way, has been moved up in the batting order, with hopes that he’ll be more difficult to pitch around in his new slot at number two). Aging 41-year old Nelson Cruz, brought in to fill the new NL DH role, did not overly impress onlookers in West Palm Beach the past month and looks more lke a trade deadline bargaining chip for Rizzo, who will likely find a few takers if Cruz displays any of his old power stroke.    The Max Scherzer/Trae Turner  trade last summer more indicated the direction in which Rizzo is now aiming; high-level prospects like C Keibert Ruiz and RHP Josiah Gray came the other way from the Dodgers in the deal and will be given chances to grow, but their payoff might still be a few years down the road.  There is also no timetable on when and if Stephen Strasburg is going to return to the rotation after an injury-plagued couple of seasons, and more than a few insiders believe that manager Dave Martinez is running out of rope, with the World Series further back in the rear-view mirror and the Nats not exactly displaying textbook fundamentals as they slide down the NL East table.  High 60s in wins looks the ceiling at Nats Park, where we anticipate an  “under” but will look forward to dining at the Ben’s Chili Bowl stand down the left-field line for one of those famous half-smokes if we get to D.C. this summer.  


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