Bleacher Report's 2019 MLB Season Preview and Predictions
Welcome to that special time of year between the winding-down of spring training and Opening Day.
Not a whole lot must be done now, save for one very important thing: Pretend to know Predict what will happen in the 2019 Major League Baseball season.
As per tradition, our predictions cover this, that, the other thing and still more things after that. Breakout players? Statistical leaders? Award winners? Playoff teams? World Series winner? Checks across the board.
Which is to say, we're really here to issue a wide array of jinxes. In any case, we better get to it.
Young Non-Rookie Breakout Stars: Bieber and McMahon
American League: Shane Bieber, Cleveland Indians
It's oh-so-tempting to tab 22-year-old Rafael Devers for a breakout at the plate, but there's too little standing between Shane Bieber and a breakout on the mound.
The Cleveland Indians' 23-year-old right-hander only mustered a 4.55 ERA as a rookie in 2018, but his peripherals included a spectacular 5.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. For 2019, he's packing a revamped changeup that should solve his platoon split against left-handed batters.
Perhaps he won't actually win it, but Bieber is a sleeper candidate for the American League Cy Young Award.
National League: Ryan McMahon, Colorado Rockies
It's rarely a good idea to interpret spring training stats as gospel, but it's occasionally hard not to. Case in point: Ryan McMahon.
The Colorado Rockies' 24-year-old infielder has raked in Cactus League games to the tune of a .439 average and 1.266 OPS. According to Nick Groke of The Athletic, this is happening after a winter in which McMahon shortened his swing to better catch up with major league heaters.
If he keeps it up, the .337 average and .956 OPS he boasts at Triple-A should soon translate to The Show.
Biggest Names Traded: Bumgarner, Smith, Castellanos, Abreu, Stroman
Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants
The San Francisco Giants will obviously keep Madison Bumgarner atop their starting rotation if they return to contention in 2019. But if that doesn't happen—and it probably won't—they'll almost certainly trade the four-time All-Star and three-time World Series champion rather than lose him to free agency in the winter.
Will Smith, San Francisco Giants
Will Smith is another left-hander who's ticketed for free agency after 2019 and therefore another possible trade chip for the Giants. He might be even more valuable than Bumgarner if he carries over the 2.55 ERA and 12.1 strikeouts per nine innings that he put up in a late-relief role last year.
Nicholas Castellanos, Detroit Tigers
The rebuilding Detroit Tigers have little incentive to keep Nicholas Castellanos, who's heading into his final season under club control. They've had a tough time generating interest in him, but it will inevitably materialize if he keeps racking up extra-base hits.
Jose Abreu, Chicago White Sox
The Chicago White Sox, who are also rebuilding, have generally resisted trading Jose Abreu. But if they're ever going to do it, it'll be this year. It's his last before free agency, and he'll have solid value if he carries on as a solid all-around performer at first base.
Marcus Stroman, Toronto Blue Jays
Marcus Stroman has made it clear that he's none too happy with his contract situation. Though he's under their control through 2020, the rebuilding Toronto Blue Jays could take that as a cue to deal Stroman this summer. Another cue would be if he re-establishes his ace value after a rough 2018 season.
Batting Triple Crown Leaders: Yelich, Judge, Martinez
Batting Average: Christian Yelich, Milwaukee Brewers
Christian Yelich went into 2018 with a .290 lifetime average, and he stuck to it with a .292 average in the first half. But then came a torrid second half that included a .367 average, and he's kept right on hitting at a .439 clip this spring. It's almost as if his talents for putting the ball in play and hitting it hard are conducive to high batting averages.
Home Runs: Aaron Judge, New York Yankees
Aaron Judge launched 52 homers in 2017 despite a slow second half and 27 in 2018 despite coming off shoulder surgery and missing time with a broken wrist. If the 6'7", 282-pound slugger stays healthy and consistent in 2019, he could hit as many as 60 homers.
Runs Batted In: J.D. Martinez, Boston Red Sox
After he led MLB with 130 runs batted in last season, there's little reason to think J.D. Martinez can't repeat the feat in 2019. He's a powerful hitter who prefers to swing the bat in all situations. Further, Andrew Benintendi and Mookie Betts should create plenty of RBI opportunities for him.
Pitching Triple Crown Leaders: Verlander, Sale, Verlander
Wins: Justin Verlander, Houston Astros
We probably shouldn't still be talking about wins after Jacob deGrom won the NL Cy Young Award with only a 10-9 record in 2018. But for tradition's sake, why not?
In any case, Justin Verlander is an innings eater who has the advantages of being very good (see below) and having the support of a strong offense and bullpen. Such things are good for a pitcher's win total.
Earned Run Average: Trevor Bauer, Cleveland Indians
Trevor Bauer broke out with a 2.21 ERA last year, and some of his peripherals—e.g., his 11.3 strikeouts and 0.5 home runs allowed per nine innings—suggested he deserved even better. He has the electric stuff and pitching acumen to keep those peripherals coming in 2019. Facing weak competition in the AL Central will also help him keep his ERA down.
Strikeouts: Justin Verlander, Houston Astros
Verlander struck out a career-high 290 batters in 2018, yet he can do so much better than that in 2019 if he picks up where he left off in 2018. He struck out 13.9 batters per nine innings in the second half, in part thanks to an extra-big-breaking curveball. Any more of that, and he can go way over the 300 mark.
American League Award Winners: Guerrero, Verlander, Judge
Rookie of the Year: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Toronto Blue Jays
In the American League, that basically means Vladimir Guerrero Jr. The Blue Jays might call him up as soon as he's recovered from an oblique injury. All he'll have to do then is hit. Judging from his .337/.451/.500 career line in the minors, the 20-year-old phenom ought to be able to handle that.
Cy Young Award: Justin Verlander, Houston Astros
Shane Bieber is a fun sleeper pick, and there are also Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber, Chris Sale, Blake Snell and Gerrit Cole to consider for the 2019 AL Cy Young Award.
But league-best totals in wins and strikeouts shouldn't be the only things Verlander has going for him at the season's end. He's an alpha member of an increasingly rare breed of 200-inning workhorses, and he's put up a 2.32 ERA ever since arriving in Houston in 2017. The dude is an ace, plain and simple.
Most Valuable Player: Aaron Judge, New York Yankees
Mike Trout is going to have an MVP-caliber season. So is Mookie Betts, who's actually been Trout's equal in wins above replacement over the last three seasons, according to Baseball Reference.
But if Judge does indeed stay healthy and productive in 2019, he can do at least as well as the 1.049 OPS and 52 homers that marked his rise to superstardom in 2017. He's also a criminally underrated defender. A guy like this has a 10-WAR season in him.
If he busts it out this year, the AL MVP will be within his reach.
National League Award Winners: Robles, Nola, Acuna
Rookie of the Year: Victor Robles, Washington Nationals
Pete Alonso has certainly made a name for himself by slugging homers and brick-walling veteran outfielders during spring training, but the likely National League Rookie of the Year is elsewhere in the NL East.
Victor Robles can handle the unenviable task of filling Bryce Harper's shoes. The 21-year-old's lightning speed and powerful arm are highlight-ready. By following an .874 OPS during a brief MLB cameo in 2018 with a .940 OPS in spring training, he's also teasing that his bat is ready for prime time.
Cy Young Award: Aaron Nola, Philadelphia Phillies
Though Jacob deGrom was a runaway winner in NL Cy Young Award voting, Aaron Nola had a higher WAR than him or any other pitcher last season. And he might be even better in 2019.
Nola, 25, mixes pinpoint command with a mix of four above-average pitches. He's thus the kind of pitcher who can miss bats and keep hard contact to a minimum, and he was doing more of the former while he was striking out 10.0 batters per nine innings in the second half of 2018.
If he keeps that up, he could waltz to the NL Cy Young Award in 2019.
Most Valuable Player: Ronald Acuna Jr., Atlanta Braves
The National League is rich in both good teams and great player, and therefore overflowing with potential MVP candidates. The best play is to bet on the best player, period, to win the MVP, which could be Ronald Acuna Jr. by a mile.
Acuna entered last year as the No. 1 prospect in baseball, and a supernova second half—in which he had a 1.028 OPS with 19 homers and 14 stolen bases—ultimately propelled him to the NL Rookie of the Year Award. Now the 21-year-old is teasing with a 1.074 spring OPS that he's still locked in.
Further, we probably haven't yet seen the best of Acuna's athleticism on the bases or in the field. If he puts it all together in 2019, he'll take his place among baseball's brightest superstars.
Cinderella Team: Minnesota Twins
The Minnesota Twins played the Cinderella role nicely in 2017, but the glass slipper fell off and shattered into smithereens in 2018. They lost 84 games and finished a distant second in the AL Central.
It's a new season now, and the Twins have a new look.
Part of it is the sheer power the Twins have lined up for 2019. Newcomer Nelson Cruz can hit them as many as 40 home runs. Fellow newcomers Jonathan Schoop, C.J. Cron and Marwin Gonzalez and incumbents Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler could hit 20 apiece.
Byron Buxton might also do that and then some if he finally realizes his potential this year. To this end, Neil Paine of FiveThirtyEight noted that Buxton's red-hot spring is indeed worth getting excited about.
On the pitching side of things, Jose Berrios and Kyle Gibson will need more support than they got last year. They'll get it if new pitching coach Wes Johnson's unique methods translate from college to the pros. There's already evidence that they will, as improved fastball velocity has been a theme of Twins camp.
A team like this has 95-win upside, which should be plenty good enough to win the AL Central.
Most Disappointing Team: Cleveland Indians
Speaking of the AL Central, the Indians are the favorite to win it after capturing three straight division championships.
Cleveland's big advantage is a starting five—Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber—that comprises the best rotation in baseball. Meanwhile, their lineup still has Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez, and their bullpen still has Brad Hand and Adam Cimber.
However, the Indians certainly lost more than they gained over the winter.
Among those who left the organization were Michael Brantley, Josh Donaldson, Yan Gomes, Edwin Encarnacion, Yonder Alonso, Andrew Miller and Cody Allen. Carlos Santana, who was worth 1.7 WAR last season, is the best of a less-than-impressive list of players added by the Indians.
This insult, as it were, has recently been followed by injuries. Lindor and Jason Kipnis will begin 2019 on the injured list. Despite negative X-rays, Cleveland got another injury scare Sunday when Ramirez fouled a ball off his leg.
These injuries may only hinder the Indians for the season's first few weeks, but that could be enough to derail their chances of a fourth straight division title.
AL East Champ: New York Yankees
The New York Yankees' spring hasn't been filled with good news.
Though they opened camp with few apparent problems, several materialized when Luis Severino, Aaron Hicks and Dellin Betances ran afoul of the injury bug. Factor in Didi Gregorius' recovery from Tommy John surgery, and the Yankees will be undermanned for the start of the year.
Yet this is still a team that won 100 games last year, and there's plenty to like about the 2019 version.
Start with the offense, which could easily break last year's record-setting 267-homer outburst if Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Gary Sanchez all bounce back from down seasons. Then go to the bullpen, which is equipped to repeat last year's historic greatness despite Betances' injury. Then to the rotation, which Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ and newcomer James Paxton can carry until Severino is healthy.
The Boston Red Sox will challenge the Yankees for the AL East title, yet they didn't do enough to safeguard against regression from last year's romp to 108 wins and a World Series title. It especially shows in their bullpen, which looks perilously weak sans Craig Kimbrel and Joe Kelly.
It'll be a tight race, but the Yankees will end up back atop the AL East for the first time since 2012.
AL Central Champ: Minnesota Twins
For further explanation as to why the Twins will finish ahead of the Indians in the 2019 AL Central race, refer back to the "Cinderella Team" and "Most Disappointing Team" slides.
Otherwise, the only other thing to know is that 2019 figures to be the third straight season in which only those two clubs are relevant within the division.
The Detroit Tigers were a contender as recently as 2016, but everything fell apart in 2017, and they're still in the early stages of putting themselves back together.
The Kansas City Royals were a competent team as recently as 2017, but they sunk to 104 losses in 2018. They've since taken an approach to rebuilding that can fairly be described as "interesting," yet the odds that it yields a contender as soon as this season are between slim and none.
The Chicago White Sox are the furthest along with their rebuild, but not far enough to believe they'll be significantly better than the club that lost 100 games in 2018. Bryce Harper or Manny Machado might have changed that, but Chicago whiffed on both in free agency.
AL West Champ: Houston Astros
Given that the 2017 club won 101 games and the World Series, the 2018 Houston Astros had a daunting act to follow.
They did so surprisingly well. Though the '18 'Stros ultimately fell short of the Fall Classic, they deserved even better than the 103 wins they collected. And this was despite down years from Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer.
All three are candidates to bounce back in 2019. Throw in the super-underrated addition of Michael Brantley and Alex Bregman's tireless march toward superstardom, and you get five good reasons to believe Houston's 2019 offense can surpass even the historic excellence of the team's 2017 batters.
With Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers Jr. out of the picture, there's a bit more uncertainty as to whether the Astros can repeat last year's MLB-best 3.11 ERA.
Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole will do their part, however, and there's some decent depth around them. A good chunk of it is in a bullpen that was one of the league's best in the second half of 2018.
Frankly, searching for flaws in the 2019 Astros is an exercise in picking nits. They should win the AL West without much trouble.
AL Wild Cards: Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays
Wild Card 1: Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox have an unimpressive bullpen, and they're tasked with overcoming a Yankees club that's powerful in every conceivable way. But this does not a doomed team make.
Indeed, the Red Sox are still a very, very good team. They'll thrive thanks to a Mookie Betts- and J.D. Martinez-led offense that was MLB's best in 2018, as well as a rotation fronted by Chris Sale and David Price that's sure to be among the league's most effective.
Maybe another 108-win season isn't in the cards, but the '19 Red Sox should challenge the 100-win mark again. That'll be good enough for the AL's top wild-card spot.
Wild Card 2: Tampa Bay Rays
If the Twins win the AL Central, the Indians will have to settle for running in the wild-card race. Other candidates are the Oakland Athletics (who are coming off a 97-win season) and possibly the Los Angeles Angels.
There will also be the Tampa Bay Rays, who are more dangerous than you might think.
The Rays won at a .580 clip after they leaned into the "opener" strategy on May 19 last year. They've since upgraded their pitching depth with Charlie Morton and their offensive depth with Mike Zunino, Avisail Garcia, Yandy Diaz and Guillermo Heredia.
The big picture is that of a team that should pitch, hit and field well enough to improve on even last year's 90-win output. If so, the AL's second wild-card spot will be theirs.
NL East Champ: Washington Nationals
There are four contenders in the NL East, and it's hard to call any of them the odds-on favorite to capture the division crown in 2019.
So...[pulls name out of a hat]...let's go with the Washington Nationals.
The Nats aren't without red flags. They'll need to make up for the loss of Bryce Harper's mighty offensive upside. They also have a handful of players whose seasons could be sunk by age and/or durability question marks.
If all goes well, however, Washington won't have any true weaknesses.
To wit, Juan Soto, Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner and Victor Robles will anchor a deep and dynamic offense. Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez will lead one of the majors' best rotations. Sean Doolittle, Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough will have little trouble closing games out.
Of course, the Nats will need the other three contenders in the NL East to be felled by various weaknesses. For the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets, that would mean their scrubs weigh down their stars. For the Atlanta Braves, it would mean their young arms aren't ready for their close-ups.
NL Central Champ: Milwaukee Brewers
All five teams in the NL Central are out to win the division in 2019, but it'll likely come down to the Milwaukee Brewers, Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals.
Of the three, the Brewers are the most complete team.
In the second half of 2018, the Brewers really hit their stride en route to 96 wins. Their offense led the way with a .781 OPS and 5.0 runs per game, and all the key members of that effort—Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, Travis Shaw, Ryan Braun, Mike Moustakas and Jesus Aguilar—are back.
There's also a newcomer who must not be sold short: Yasmani Grandal. He's one of the best offensive catchers (.799 OPS and 73 homers since 2016) in the game, and he can also help Milwaukee pitchers with his elite framing talent.
The Brewers pitching staff lacks a true No. 1 starter, but Jimmy Nelson, Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta are all candidates to fill that role. Injuries to Jeremy Jeffress (shoulder) and Corey Knebel (elbow) are disconcerting, yet Milwaukee's Josh Hader-led bullpen still looks darn good.
The Cubs and Cardinals, meanwhile, each have question marks looming over their pitching depth. There's an additional question about whether either team's offensive upside goes as high as Milwaukee's.
NL West Champ: Los Angeles Dodgers
This is where things get a little easier, as it's hard to bet against a Los Angeles Dodgers team that's won six straight NL West titles.
Granted, the Dodgers did have a curious offseason. They let several key players (including Manny Machado and Yasmani Grandal) walk via free agency. They also jettisoned Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp and Alex Wood in a salary-dump deal that they probably didn't need to make.
Still, it speaks volumes about the Dodgers' pitching depth that Kershaw and Hill will be temporarily replaced by a 2018 All-Star (Ross Stripling) and a formerly elite prospect (Julio Urias). In the bullpen, ace closer Kenley Jansen once again leads a deep collection of talented arms.
The Dodgers aren't hurting for depth on the other side of the ball either, where Justin Turner, Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy, newcomer A.J. Pollock and a healthy Corey Seager will form the backbone of perhaps the National League's strongest lineup.
The only other team in the NL West that looks any good is the Colorado Rockies. But we'll get to that in a moment.
NL Wild Cards: Colorado Rockies and New York Mets
Wild Card 1: Colorado Rockies
The Rockies won 91 games last year despite an offense that relied way too heavily on Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story and Charlie Blackmon and which was downright abysmal away from Coors Field.
That problem shouldn't repeat itself in 2019 if newcomer Daniel Murphy and incumbents such as David Dahl, Ryan McMahon and Garrett Hampson live up to their billing. All the Rockies would need then is for co-aces Kyle Freeland and German Marquez and a rejuvenated Jon Gray (2.55 ERA and 22 strikeouts in spring training) to carry their pitching staff.
Need another reason to believe in the Rockies as a wild-card contender? While other teams in the NL Central and NL East will have few soft spots in their schedules, the Rockies will play the Arizona Diamondbacks, San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants 57 times.
Wild Card 2: New York Mets
This should arguably be the Cubs. Or the Phillies. Or the Cardinals. Or the Braves. Or even the Pittsburgh Pirates or Cincinnati Reds.
Instead, it's the Mets, who've got it where it counts.
Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Zack Wheeler (who's a sleeper Cy Young Award candidate, by the way) are an excellent rotation trio. Likewise, Jeurys Familia and Edwin Diaz are a terrific bullpen duo. And while it's hard to discern how all the pieces will ultimately fit together, the Mets have an ultra-deep offense that should specialize in hitting long balls.
Relative to the teams listed above, the Mets probably have the sturdiest 85-win floor and therefore the best shot at surviving the NL wild-card race.
American League Championship Series: Astros over Yankees
Let's first assume the Red Sox dispatch the Rays by outslugging them in the AL Wild Card Game.
That would set the Astros up to avenge their loss to Boston in the 2018 American League Championship Series, wherein George Springer didn't get enough support on offense.
To round things out, let's assume the Yankees' power hitting and power pitching outshine the Twins' power hitting and power pitching in the other American League Division Series.
Thus, the stage would be set for a rematch of the 2017 ALCS: Yankees vs. Astros.
The Yankees nearly upset the Astros in 2017, but they ran out of gas and got outscored 11-to-1 in Games 6 and 7 at Minute Maid Park. Since then, their offense has only gotten deeper and more powerful. Albeit to a lesser extent, the same is also true of their pitching staff.
Still, the Astros are one of very few teams who are on the same level as the Yankees offensively. They also have plenty of pitching depth in their own right, within which are plenty of power arms that could exploit the Yankees offense's tendency for strikeouts.
Ultimately, the 2019 ALCS will end the same way as the 2017 ALCS: The Astros win in seven.
National League Championship Series: Brewers over Dodgers
In the NL Wild Card Game, the Mets' arms and bats would lead the way to an upset of the Rockies at Coors Field.
The Mets would then try to repeat their upset of the Dodgers in the 2015 National League Division Series, but a deeper, more dangerous offense would await their power arms this time.
In the other NLDS, the Nationals would need their ace-filled rotation to carry them to victory over the Brewers. It won't work in the face of Milwaukee's dangerous offense and deep pitching staff.
The result would be another rematch, this time between the Dodgers and Brewers.
When the two clubs met in the 2018 NLCS, what ensued was a back-and-forth contest that the Brewers lost despite scoring one more run (24) than the Dodgers (23). They just didn't have anything left for Game 7, which the Dodgers won handily 5-1.
The Brewers are more experienced and arguably deeper than they were a year ago. The Dodgers may not be any worse than they were in 2018, but it's fair to wonder if all the baseball they've played since 2016—three straight NLCS appearances and two straight World Series appearances—might catch up to them as they go deeper into 2019.
If it does, the Brewers will have their revenge in six games.
World Series: Astros over Brewers
It will all come down to this: Astros vs. Brewers in the 2019 World Series.
This would be only Milwaukee's second appearance in the World Series. The first came all the way back in 1982 when Robin Yount and friends fumbled a 3-2 series lead in a losing effort against the Cardinals.
Opposite the Astros, the Brewers would need their Christian Yelich-led offense to hang with Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer and the rest of Houston's big boppers. Likewise, the Brewers would need all their pitchers to be on top of their game for the sake of matching up with Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Houston's other star hurlers.
With a few surprises here and there, the Brewers would have a shot at pulling off the upset.
In all likelihood, however, the Astros would simply be too much for them. They have a better lineup and rotation, and the two clubs' bullpens are at least evenly matched. Assuming they enjoy another 100-win season, the Astros would also have home-field advantage.
Let's be out with it: The Astros will close 2019 by defeating the Brewers in the World Series in five games.
With that, predicting time is over. For the Astros, apologies for the jinx. For the Brewers, you're welcome for the not-jinx.
For everyone else, here's wishing you a very happy baseball season.