In some ways, we’re about to kick off the least interesting baseball season in memory. There’s a lack of competitive balance at the top of the game right now that has produced five clear divisional favorites — the same five that won their divisions going away last year. It’s possible, even likely, that for the first time since baseball went to six divisions in 1994, all six will be won by the same team that won the previous season.
I’ve been a baseball contrarian for more than 20 years, and I can’t find a way to wave you off the Nationals, Cubs, Dodgers, Indians, and Astros to win their respective divisions. I also can’t recommend them as bets at their current odds, which at 5Dimes range from -220 (Cubs and Dodgers) to -425 (Astros). The fall-off to the class of teams battling for wild cards, which includes the Brewers, Cardinals, and Giants in the NL, and the Angels, Blue Jays, and Twins in the NL, is just too wide.
The one division where there is a fight is the AL East, where the Red Sox return all of a 93-win division champion but the manager, and the Yankees bring back a 91-team team plus a 59-homer hitter — and also a new manager. The Yankees’ addition of Giancarlo Stanton to go with Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez has them as the division favorite in most places — -135 at 5Dimes, to +165 for the Red Sox.
This is an overreaction to the Yankees “winning the winter” with the Stanton trade. The Red Sox were the better team last year, and they return a core of prime-age players that, by and large, had off seasons in 2017. The Red Sox won their 93 games while Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and Jackie Bradley Jr. fell off their 2016 performances. Andrew Benintendi didn’t hit his projections, and the loss of David Ortiz was felt every single day: the Red Sox were last in home runs and 14th in slugging percentage in the AL. Well, J.D. Martinez was signed to be the big, hairy, 35-homer bat the team was missing last year, and all of those young hitters — plus Rafael Devers, who showed excellent power last in the season — are back.
The Red Sox also gain in the dugout. They replaced John Farrell, a mixed bag of traits as a manager, with the industry’s top external candidate in Astros bench coach Alex Cora. The Yankees swapped out Joe Girardi, one of the game’s better tacticians, for a broadcast analyst with no managerial experience at all in Aaron Boone. Quantifying a manager’s impact on a team’s record is hard, but even if you call the new managers a wash, the Yankees let go of the better skipper.
The Red Sox are the better team, and in fact, they look like the second-best team in the AL behind the Astros. Their offense should be much better, they have a deep rotation that expects to get full, healthy seasons from David Price and Eduardo Rodriguez (just 35 starts and 212 combined innings in 2017), and they have the best outfield defense in the game. The Yankees played about as good as they could play a year ago. You can project regression from Judge, from Gary Sanchez, from Didi Gregorius and Luis Severino, players who drove that 91-win season. They’re still good enough to host the Wild Card Game, but they will finish well back of the Red Sox.
Other things to look for this year:
— The awards races a season ago were affected by injuries, as Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Clayton Kershaw all saw MVP and Cy Young honors lost to long DL trips. When everyone is healthy, however, there’s no reason to think that Trout won’t win the AL MVP and Kershaw the NL Cy Young.
— Beyond those two, however, the separation of seven teams at the top reflects a concentration of great players on those seven teams. Max Scherzer’s third Cy Young Award now puts him on a path to the Hall of Fame, and he might not be the best pitcher in his own rotation (Stephen Strasburg). Chris Sale has finished in the top five in Cy Young voting, without winning the award, for five straight seasons. Like Trout, Carlos Correa also lost out on an MVP award to a thumb injury, watching his double-play partner, Jose Altuve, win it instead. The Dodgers have the last two NL Rookies of the Year to go with Kershaw.
— Even after seeing two incredible rookie crops, there are more young players on the way. The NL East alone has the game’s top prospect in the Braves’ Ronald Acuna, a Phillies’ infield with rookies J.P. Crawford and Scott Kingery, and the Mets’ shortstop Amed Rosario. In the AL, Japanese import Shohei Ohtani is trying to be the game’s first true two-way star in 100 years. By midseason, the Yankees will have called up infielder Gleyber Torres, the White Sox young flamethrower Michael Kopech, and the Astros power-hitting Kyle Tucker.
Even if we don’t get much in the way of pennant races, we’re still getting to watch some great baseball and some great baseball teams. Three teams won at least 101 games last year, and it wasn’t just because a third of the league is rebuilding. It is because a handful of front offices have simply done a better job than others at bringing along young talent. It’s not about the money, it’s about the player development. Let’s play ball.
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