Bleacher Report's 2018 MLB Season Preview and Predictions
Opening Day is nigh. That means it's time for one thing, and one thing only.
For us to pretend like we know what's going to happen this season.
Ahead are predictions for Season No. 118 of the hit show, Major League Baseball. Lots of 'em. And they cover everything, from breakout players to statistical leaders to postseason teams and, ultimately, the World Series winner.
Enough lollygagging. Let's get to it.
Young Non-Rookie Breakout Stars: Chapman and Albies
American League: Matt Chapman, Oakland Athletics
The temptation was strong to go with Byron Buxton here. But the Minnesota Twins' speedy center fielder has been a brand-name player since his prospect days, and his 5.3-WAR 2017 fits the description of a "breakout."
Matt Chapman isn't a star yet, but he soon will be. He showed in 84 games with the A's last year that he can be the Nolan Arenado of the American League: a spectacular defensive third baseman (19 defensive runs saved) who hits for power (14 home runs) at the dish.
National League: Ozzie Albies, Atlanta Braves
If Chapman can be the AL's Arenado, then Ozzie Albies can be the National League's Jose Altuve.
The 5'9", 160-pounder isn't an imposing presence, but he's shown that there's little he can't do on a baseball diamond. His 57-game debut with the Braves in 2017 featured a strong approach (.354 OBP) with some power (six homers) and speed (eight stolen bases), plus solid defense at second base.
And he's only 21 years old.
Biggest Names Traded: Archer, Britton, Duffy, Machado, Realmuto
Chris Archer, Tampa Bay Rays
Chris Archer is one of few stars left standing in Tampa Bay after the club's offseason fire sale. That should change around the trade deadline. His electric and durable arm and cheap contract will make him a trade chip that needy contenders won't be able to resist.
Zach Britton, Baltimore Orioles
Zach Britton's landing on the trade block depends on two things: his proving he's recovered from his ruptured Achilles, and the Orioles falling out of contention. Since both are realistic outcomes, you can expect contenders to line up to rent Britton's unhittable sinker for the second half of the year.
Danny Duffy, Kansas City Royals
Like the Tenth Doctor, Danny Duffy doesn't want to go. Alas, the Royals have a massive rebuild to carry out. And while the left-hander doesn't have Archer's durability, he does have the electric arm and the cheap contract to be a Plan B for pitching-needy contenders.
Manny Machado, Baltimore Orioles
If the Orioles fall out of contention and decide to trade Britton rather than let him reach free agency, chances are they'll take the same approach with Manny Machado. For the right price, the hard-hitting, slick-fielding shortstop will supercharge one lucky contender's infield.
J.T. Realmuto, Miami Marlins
J.T. Realmuto will begin the year as the best player on an awful Marlins team and finish it as a missing link behind the plate for a contender. A trade would also finally make him a household name, as it would expose his tremendous athleticism to a wider audience.
Batting Triple Crown Leaders: Altuve, Trout, Arenado
Batting Average: Jose Altuve, Houston Astros
Hey, sometimes the obvious pick is also the right pick. In this case, it's hard to bet against Jose Altuve in the batting average race. All he's done over the last four seasons is hit .334. That's 22 points better than any other qualified (i.e., a minimum of 1,000 plate appearances) hitter.
Home Runs: Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels
The easy pick here is one of the New York Yankees' resident giants: Giancarlo Stanton or Aaron Judge. But on occasion, a guy must stick with his bold predictions. One of those held that Mike Trout will use his extraordinary power and increasingly sharp approach to blow past his career high of 41 home runs.
Runs Batted In: Nolan Arenado, Colorado Rockies
Arenado has topped 130 RBI in each of the last three seasons. There's only one other player (Stanton) with as many as one such season in this span. It helps that he gets to play half his games at Coors Field. It also helps that he's a tremendous hitter who's averaged a .930 OPS and 40 homers per year since 2015.
Pitching Triple Crown Leaders: Sale, Kershaw, Syndergaard
Wins: Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox
Chris Sale won 17 games for a bad Chicago White Sox team in 2016 and 17 games for a good Red Sox team in 2017. Now the Red Sox are equipped to be even better in 2018, and they and Sale have a plan that should help him avoid a September swoon. More wins will be one of his rewards.
Earned Run Average: Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
Due to his string of back woes, Clayton Kershaw is no longer a lock for 200 innings. But nothing on this earth can stop him from putting up a super-low ERA. He had a 2.31 ERA last year, and his 2.36 career ERA is the best of anyone who's pitched at least 1,900 innings since...[runs search]...dang, 19-freakin'-15.
Strikeouts: Noah Syndergaard, New York Mets
Noah Syndergaard struck out 10.7 batters per nine innings back in 2016. He's ready to build on that in 2018. He's healthy after missing most of 2017 with a lat injury, and he flashed better-than-ever stuff in spring training. Considering that his stuff was already arguably the best in the game, that's saying something.
American League Award Winners: Hays, Sale, Trout
Rookie of the Year: Austin Hays, Baltimore Orioles
Shohei Ohtani once seemed like a shoo-in for the AL Rookie of the Year. However, his spring training was ugly enough to raise suspicions about whether he can cut it as a pitcher or a hitter, much less both.
In lieu of Ohtani, how about Austin Hays? The 22-year-old outfielder put up a .958 OPS and 32 homers in the minors last year, and it likely won't be long before he joins the Orioles for good in 2018.
Cy Young Award: Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox
On occasion, a guy must also backtrack from his bold predictions. A healthy David Price is indeed a dark horse for the AL Cy Young Award, but Boston's other talented lefty is a more realistic pick.
Sale's track record as a Cy Young contender peaked with a second-place finish in 2017, which he earned on the strength of a 2.90 ERA and MLB highs in innings (214.1) and strikeouts (308). Any more of that plus a little extra stamina for the stretch run should finally elevate him to No. 1 in the voting.
Most Valuable Player: Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels
Trout averaged 9.3 WAR per season between 2012 and 2016. And yet, 2017 would have been his personal pinnacle had he not missed six weeks with a thumb injury. He led the majors with a 1.071 OPS and hit 33 homers and stole 22 bases. If he picks up where he left off, he should cruise to his third MVP.
National League Award Winners: Acuna, Syndergaard, Contreras
Rookie of the Year: Ronald Acuna Jr., Atlanta Braves
While Ohtani struggled to live up to his status as MLB.com's No. 1 prospect in spring training, Ronald Acuna Jr. had little trouble showing why he ranks at No. 2.
He put up a 1.247 OPS with four homers and four steals. Preceding this was a 2017 season in which the 20-year-old rapidly advanced from High-A to Triple-A. He then dominated in the Arizona Fall League. Clearly, he's ready for his closeup in The Show.
Cy Young Award: Noah Syndergaard, New York Mets
Kershaw and Max Scherzer have owned the NL Cy Young Award voting in recent years, but even they may not be able to compete with the mighty Thor in 2018. Syndergaard might have won the award if he'd crossed over 200 innings in 2016. That should be doable in 2018. His Asgardian arm will do the rest.
Most Valuable Player: Willson Contreras, Chicago Cubs
The Senior Circuit doesn't have a Mike Trout. What it does have is a Bryce Harper, a Kris Bryant, a Paul Goldschmidt, a Joey Votto, a Nolan Arenado and numerous other MVP candidates.
Willson Contreras is ready to throw his name in with the lot. The Cubs catcher has already shown he can be an elite two-way backstop, and yet his upside still goes higher. If he puts it all together this year, the NL MVP voters will have no choice but to consider him as the rightful winner.
Cinderella Team: Toronto Blue Jays
In a league increasingly populated by loaded and hungry haves and empty and indifferent have-nots, it's difficult to pick out sleeper contenders.
But in 2018, nobody fits the bill like the Toronto Blue Jays.
After advancing to the American League Championship Series in 2015 and 2016, their run of contention seemed to end as they battled injuries and ineffectiveness en route to a 76-86 record in 2017.
As such, it's impressive that they went 70-69 after April 28. By extension, it's also understandable that they tackled the offseason the way they did.
Rather than tear down, they loaded up. A lineup that relied too heavily on Josh Donaldson and Justin Smoak is now deeper after the additions of Curtis Granderson, Randal Grichuk, Aledmys Diaz and Yangervis Solarte. A starting rotation that leaned too heavily on Marcus Stroman and J.A. Happ received Jaime Garcia and will also have a healthy Aaron Sanchez.
Oh, sure, there are still nits to pick with Toronto's roster. But the Jays only need to make it to 85 wins to have a shot at a wild-card berth. They have more than enough to get that far.
Most Disappointing Team: San Francisco Giants
Even before a recent event took place, you could look at the San Francisco Giants and see a star-studded team that was standing on thin ice.
They began the offseason with a long list of incumbent stars and then added Evan Longoria, Andrew McCutchen and Austin Jackson. Thus, they seem equipped to put last year's 98-loss debacle behind them.
"I see All-Stars. I see MVPs. I see world championships," McCutchen said on March 24, per Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times. "That's what I see. You know what you're going to get from these guys. They're good. They have a proven track record."
The catch is that the Giants are old. Once Brandon Belt turns 30 in April, Madison Bumgarner and Joe Panik will be their only key players on the south side of 30.
Speaking of Bumgarner, he's the subject of the aforementioned recent event. A line drive off the bat of Whit Merrifield on March 23 broke the lefty ace's pitching hand, knocking him out for 6-8 weeks.
Rather than a return to form for the 2010, 2012 and 2014 World Series champions, all the signs point to 2018 being a second straight flop.
AL East Champ: New York Yankees
The Yankees were supposed to be rebuilding in 2017. Instead, they went 91-71 season and darn near made it to the World Series.
Now, they're ready for the next step.
Although losing Greg Bird for six-to-eight weeks hurts, the Yankees' offense still figures to be their main attraction. Aaron Judge (52 homers), Gary Sanchez (33 homers) and Didi Gregorius (25 homers) are returnees from a 2017 lineup that led MLB with 241 long balls. And now they're batting alongside Giancarlo Stanton, whose 59 dingers led the majors.
“They pretty much stacked the lineup with more power," said former Red Sox nemesis David Ortiz, according to Nicole Yang of Boston.com. "I don’t think anyone else in the [AL East] can compete with that.”
Elsewhere, Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka and Sonny Gray lead a strong rotation, and Aroldis Chapman leads possibly the best bullpen ever assembled. To boot, new manager Aaron Boone should manage said bullpen better than Joe Girardi did.
Then there's the club's farm system, which boasts some of the best prospects—e.g., Gleyber Torres, Miguel Andujar, Estevan Florial and Justus Sheffield—in the game. The Yankees can either promote them to help the cause or cash them in at the trade deadline.
It all adds up to a winner. A big winner.
AL Central Champ: Cleveland Indians
The Cleveland Indians have won more regular-season games (196) than any other team since 2016.
That's in part because they've been great and in part because they've been the only great team in the AL Central. Fortunately for them, neither of these things should change in 2018.
Cleveland does bear some red flags going into 2018. Michael Brantley and Danny Salazar still come with massive durability question marks. There are other durability questions elsewhere, as well as a question about the viability of the team's outfield alignment.
But as per usual, the club's strengths far outweigh its weaknesses.
Its lineup is led by a pair of MVP candidates in Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez. Its rotation is led by a pair of Cy Young candidates in Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco. Its bullpen is led by a pair of relief aces in Andrew Miller and Cody Allen. And managing it all is Terry Francona, who knows what the heck he's doing.
Elsewhere in the AL Central is a Minnesota Twins team that doesn't measure up and then three clubs in various stages of rebuilds. In other words, no worthy challengers to the Tribe's leadership.
AL West Champ: Houston Astros
The Houston Astros won 101 regular-season games and their first World Series title in 2017.
Now they have to worry about the hangover.
It could just be a coincidence that the last 15 seasons have seen just one team (the 2008-09 Philadelphia Phillies) return to the World Series the season after winning it. Or, it could be that there are physical and psychological letdown effects at play.
Even the Chicago Cubs seemed to feel them, as they went from 103 wins and a World Series title in 2016 to 92 wins and an exit in the National League Championship Series in 2017.
Lefty ace Dallas Keuchel doesn't want to hear it, however. As he told Dave Sheinin of the Los Angeles Times: “We’re not the Cubs. I firmly believe we have better players.”
Well, let's see. Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer and most of the rest of a historically great offense are all back for 2018. On the mound, the Astros now have Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander for a full year.
So, Keuchel has an argument. And if nothing else, the Astros' many stars should be able to secure a second straight AL West title in 2018.
AL Wild Cards: Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays
Wild Card 1: Boston Red Sox
Although the Red Sox will be hard-pressed to keep pace with the Yankees, make no mistake: They're an elite team that has a shot at 95-plus wins in 2018.
A healthy Price will boost a rotation that was hit-or-miss outside of Sale in 2017. The addition of J.D. Martinez, who slugged 45 homers in 119 games last year, to a lineup that already had Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Andrew Benintendi and Rafael Devers will help solve the team's post-Big Papi power problem. Throw in Craig Kimbrel at the back end of games, and the Red Sox are set for excellence.
Wild Card 2: Toronto Blue Jays
To be perfectly candid, the best pick for the AL's second wild-card spot is the Los Angeles Angels. Despite their Ohtani conundrum, Trout's presence and the additions of Ian Kinsler and Zack Cozart are just a few reasons to believe they can make a run at 90 wins.
However, the Blue Jays have already been fitted for the glass slipper. And if enough things bounce right for them in 2018, their 85-win potential just might become 90-win potential.
NL East Champ: Washington Nationals
There's urgency for the Washington Nationals to go far in 2018. It's no secret that they stand to lose Bryce Harper to free agency. They also stand to lose Daniel Murphy, Gio Gonzalez and quite a few others.
In light of this, things could be going better for them on the eve of the season.
The Nationals already know Murphy will begin the season on the disabled list as he continues his recovery from offseason knee surgery. Adam Eaton is also recovering from knee surgery. Elsewhere, age and/or injury concerns abound.
And yet, all this doesn't constitute a reason to panic.
At least on paper, the Nationals are loaded. Harper, Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman lead one of baseball's best lineups. Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg lead one the best rotations. The club's bullpen was a mess for most of 2017, but it will now have Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler for a full season.
You won't find depth like this anywhere else in the NL East. So for the fifth time in the last seven seasons, the division should be Washington's for the taking.
NL Central Champ: Chicago Cubs
If there's hope for the Astros to glean from the Cubs' World Series hangover, it's that it only lasted for half the season.
The Cubs went from shuffling through a 43-45 first half to sprinting through a 49-25 second half. Their offense was their main energy source, as it produced an .811 OPS and 5.7 runs per game.
This offense should pick up right where it left off. Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras are still the men in the middle. The supporting cast around them includes an emerging star in Ian Happ as well as a seemingly rejuvenated star in Kyle Schwarber.
What the Cubs lacked for most of 2017 was steady pitching. Having Jose Quintana for a full year alongside new additions Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood will help fix that on the rotation side of things. On the bullpen side, Brandon Morrow leads a completely revamped relief corps.
The Cubs should have no problem putting last year's "down" season behind them. If they do, the rest of the NL Central won't be able to keep up.
NL West Champ: Los Angeles Dodgers
The Los Angeles Dodgers started 2017 as a deep team and got even deeper over time. So, it's no wonder that they won 104 games and their first NL pennant since 1988.
Alas, some of their depth is gone now.
They lost Yu Darvish, Curtis Granderson, Brandon Morrow and Tony Watson to free agency and Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir, Adrian Gonzalez and Luis Avilan in trades. Now the injury bug is hammering away at what depth they have left, as Justin Turner is set to miss the first few weeks of 2018 with a broken wrist.
On the bright side, however, this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager lead a lineup that has a viable option for just about every role. Clayton Kershaw leads a strong rotation, and Kenley Jansen leads a strong bullpen. And underneath everything is a farm system that has at least two players (Walker Buehler and Alex Verdugo) who are ready to step in and make a difference.
Even if the Giants do flop once again, the Dodgers still have to watch out for the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies. But in the end, a sixth straight NL West title should be theirs.
NL Wild Cards: Arizona Diamondbacks and New York Mets
Wild Card 1: Arizona Diamondbacks
If the Diamondbacks, who surprisingly won 93 games last year, didn't seem primed for a regression before, they might now after injuries to Zack Greinke and Steven Souza Jr.
Greinke's groin injury isn't serious enough to warrant a DL stint, however. He thus stands to once again lead a rotation that was among MLB's best in 2017. And once Souza is healthy, he'll join forces with Paul Goldschmidt and Jake Lamb to form the backbone of one of the NL's better offenses.
Is another 93-win season in store? No. But the D-backs are good enough to avoid a major step back.
Wild Card 2: New York Mets
In all likelihood, there's going to be a veritable royal rumble between the Colorado Rockies, St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers and New York Mets for the NL's second wild card. Any of the four could win it.
The Mets are the pick here because they have enough pitching depth to figure out a workable rotation trio behind Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom and their offense has enough firepower to surpass last year's NL-best 224 homers.
American League Championship Series: Yankees over Astros
In this scenario, the Astros will make like the 2017 Cubs and shake off their World Series hangover to beat the Indians in one American League Division Series.
In the other, the Yankees will dispatch the Red Sox in the first postseason meeting between the two rivals since the 2004 ALCS.
Thus, the table would be set for a rematch of the 2017 ALCS: Yankees vs. Astros.
In last year's contest, the Yankees fumbled a 3-2 series lead when they got outscored 11-1 in Games 6 and 7. They seemed out of gas and out of sorts amid enemy territory at Minute Maid Park.
This time around, it's the Yankees who'll have the home-field advantage. And even when they take to the road, the experience gained by Judge, Sanchez, Severino and others should help them avoid a recurrence of the out-of-sorts part.
Otherwise, it's hard to imagine a Yankees lineup with Stanton now in tow being held to just six home runs again. And between the front three in their rotation and the endless supply of radar gun abusers in their bullpen, the Yankees have the weapons to suppress Houston's own powerful offense.
It'll be a battle, all right. But in the end, the Yankees will have their revenge in six games.
National League Championship Series: Cubs over Dodgers
Over in the National League, the Nationals will once again bow out of the Division Series round courtesy of the Dodgers.
The other NLDS will feature the Cubs and Mets. The Cubs weren't ready for the Mets' live arms when they faced them in the 2015 NLCS. They will be this time.
The result will be yet another 2017 Championship Series rematch: Cubs vs. Dodgers.
Last year's series was barely a contest, as the Dodgers outscored the Cubs 28-8 in five games. The Dodgers were a buzzsaw at that point, and the Cubs seemed to be worn out from their short winter and difficult season.
In the rematch, the roles are going to be reversed.
Whereas the Dodgers didn't do a whole lot to improve in a short offseason, the Cubs used their longer offseason to hit all the right notes with their roster construction.
The Cubs will bring a superior offense to the 2018 NLCS. And while they may not have the individual pitchers to match up with Kershaw and Jansen, two things can render that moot: the fact that neither has been unbeatable in October and the sheer number of quality arms the Cubs have to lean on.
As long as we're sticking with the role-reversal theme, we might as well go with the Cubs in five.
World Series: Yankees over Cubs
And so, it will all come down to this: Yankees vs. Cubs in the World Series.
Simply for narrative purposes, it's a shame that this didn't take place two seasons ago. It would have been a franchise on the hunt for its 28th World Series title against a franchise looking for its first in 108 years. David, meet Goliath.
But, oh well. A tilt between the Yankees and Cubs in 2018 would still have the makings of a humdinger.
It would feature a battle between a Stanton-, Judge- and Sanchez-led lineup and a Bryant-, Rizzo- and Contreras-led lineup. The starting pitching matchups would also hold plenty of intrigue. Imagine Severino's electricity against Jon Lester's craftiness or a showdown between Japanese aces Tanaka and Darvish.
However, the Yankees have one thing the Cubs can't hope to match up against: their bullpen. Chicago's bullpen is more deep than talented. New York's bullpen is both. In a day and age when bullpens mean the world in October, that's a big edge.
Ultimately, here's how the 2018 season will end: the Yankees over the Cubs in the World Series in six games.
That about does it for the predicting. Apologies in advance to the Yankees for the jinx. For everyone else, here's wishing you a very happy baseball season.