The Warning Track: Predicting October’s squads in March

The weather is getting warmer, the grass is getting greener and Major League Baseball marches towards Opening Day on Monday, with a triple-header preceding on Sunday.

The business of predicting who will reign supreme in their respective division is always an obstensively exciting and enticing one, like waiting for 3-0 pitch and being confident that you’ll take it for ball one,, only to swing away and hit an infield popup.

Because for most of us columnists, barring some rare mercy from the baseball gods (sportswriting gods?), most of our predictions are destroyed by the time the All-Star Break rolls around.

Exhibit A: My World Series prediction around this time last year. 

There will be injuries, there will be unforeseen breakouts, there will be hypothetical apologies to fans for leading them in the wrong direction.

Most likely.

But before that time comes around, us columnists can revel in the glory of the return of regular season baseball, and with it the false feeling that we have more say in what the 2016 season is fated to become than the baseball gods do.

We begin by predicting the postseason field, with MVP, Cy Young, and other predictions to come later in the week.

American League East 

It’s easy to be enticed by the image of David Price leading Boston to the division crown, until you remember there is a huge possibility that last year’s costly acquisitions of Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval perform poorly for a second consecutive year.

It’s easy to fall in love with the home-run happy group in Baltimore, until you remember that they’re a strikeout-happy core as well.

It’s easy to conclude a 30 game suspension for Aroldis Chapman might not mean much to the Yankees’ already top-three bullpen in the long run, until you remember the average age of their core is high enough for them to be considered the senior citizens of Major League Baseball.

It would also be easy to buy into the Toronto Blue Jays and the steamroller of a squad they were in the second half of the season last year, led by eventual AL MVP Josh Donaldson…and it’d be easy to think that even if they were to regress a little bit, they’d still be the favorite for the division.

Which is why I’m going with Toronto, the club that has unfinished business in returning the Fall Classic to Canada for the first time in almost a quarter of a century, as well as a stable enough rotation that should do well to weather the absence of Price.

Pick: Toronto Blue Jays

1704050871_4558663698001_jose-bautista-home-run

American League Central

The AL Central has the potential to be very much like its counterpart in the Senior Circuit – extremely competitive, with tight races and tighter storylines.

It will be interesting to see how the White Sox move on from the Adam LaRoche controversy that dominated headlines for a time during Spring Training. But even if they do, and even if Jose Abreu fulfills his MVP potential, it’s tough to think they did enough in the offseason to improve on last years’ ballclub.

In Detroit, Miguel Cabrera will be Miguel Cabrera, but it will be acquisitions like Justin Upton and Jordan Zimmerman and, perhaps most importantly, a revived, down to business Justin Verlander that will decide the fate of the 2016 Tigers. There should be some fantastic showdowns between Detroit and the defending champions in Kansas City, with a grossly underrated Indians club lurking in the shadows.

And who knows? Sports Illustrated took care not to spotlight Cleveland, so that just might be enough to get them into October.

Pick: Kansas City Royals, somewhat hesitantly

royals

 

American League West

If he can shoulder the incredible weight of expectations placed upon him, Astros shortstop Carlos Correa (.279 avg., 22 home runs, 68 RBI in 99 games in 2015) could be the second best player in the American League by the end of the season, only looking up to division co-superstar Mike Trout.

There’s reason to believe the 21-year-old Correa could play a major part in ensuring the rest of the baseball landscape that 2015 was no fluke and Houston is here to stay in contention, not to mention Dallas Keuchel, Jose Altuve, Evan Gattis…the list of impact players goes on and on…

…as it does for in-state rival Texas, which is looking to stay relevant over the course of a full season again behind Prince Fielder, veteran Adrian Beltre and 2015 trade deadline acquisition Cole Hamels.

The Rangers will look to give Houston a run for their money, and they’ve got high-end prospects waiting in the wings looking to assist if need be.

It’ll be a two-horse race between that pair of Lone Star State squads as they feast on the work-in-progress A’s, the consistently underachieving Mariners (no, I won’t be making that mistake again) and the mind-boggling Angels, who might have had the most dissapointingly quiet offseason in baseball.

Trout can do a lot, some would say he can even do it all. But expecting him to be the player to step up every day is just too much for the young star, and Albert Pujols isn’t getting any younger.

Pick: Houston Astros 

astros

American League Wild Cards

1) Cleveland Indians 

The offense has the potential to impress, but even if it doesn’t, the starting rotation in Cleveland is one to be feared. That town deserves one adequate sports team, right?

2) Texas Rangers 

While the Astros’ youth may prevail for the division, the Rangers’ experience will lead them back to October. A healthy Yu Darvish – which would mean a terrifyingly dominant Yu Darvish – is the key for Texas.

 

National League East

The Phillies and Braves are still a few years away from returning to the status of contender, and the Marlins’ success depends largely on full seasons from Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez, a much-awaited phenomenon that has to happen.

Will Bryce Harper make sure the 2016 Nationals live up to the expectations of yesteryear? How quickly will the Mets rotation – essentially made up of four aces – make the baseball landscape think that the 2015 Cardinals’ staff was nothing compared to the arms they have in New York?

Those will be the dominant storylines in what should be a tight NL East all season long in the top two spots.

But Yoenis Cespedes’ decision to return to New York long-term should be what pushes the Mets over the bump. If he can lead the offense to even a semblance of what it was in the 2015 home stretch (1st in the NL after the All-Star Break in runs, home runs, and doubles), New York will withstand Harper and an overall stronger Washington club to come out on top.

Pick: New York Mets 

cespedes

National League Central

What may be the best division in all of the four major sports associations is also the easiest to predict and call it a day.

Whether the Cubs will end their curse in October remains to be seen, but it would be mind-boggling if this group doesn’t at least improve on their 98 wins from last season. Taking the two most productive players away from their rivals in St. Louis is enough to sharpie them in for the NLDS.

It will be fascinating to see how the relatively young group in Chicago – which still has a healthy dose of experienced players –  deals with the monstrous amount of expectations thrust upon them, but if any manager in the game can keep the young Cubbies’ focus on their ultimate goal, it’s Joe Maddon.

The tougher question with the NL Central is whether it will again produce three postseason teams as it did a season ago.

Pick: Chicago Cubs  

maddon

National League West

Contrary to most sportswriters, I’m pretty sold on what the Diamondbacks have cooking in Arizona.

Already armed with an offense that has been top five in the NL in four of the past five seasons, the D-Backs went out a nabbed a legitimate ace who still has something to prove in Zack Greinke (19-3, 1.66 ERA in 2015 with L.A.).

That move simultaneously set off questions marks for every starter behind Clayton Kershaw in L.A., who have been plagued by injuries this spring. Meanwhile, while it is an even year and they still have what it is by far the best battery mates in the game in Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey, San Francisco will need formidable comebacks from offseason additions Jeff Samardzija (4.96 ERA in 2015) and Johnny Cueto (4.76 ERA in 13 starts with the Royals in 2015) to be competitive.

And, let’s be honest, it’s time to see what Paul Goldschmidt (.321 avg., 33 home runs, 110 RBI in 2015) can do in October.

Pick: Arizona Diamondbacks 

Arizona Diamondbacks pitchers Zack Greinke and Patrick Corbin (46) prepare to hit during a spring training baseball practice, Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, in Scottsdale, Ariz.  (AP Photo/Matt York)

National League Wild Cards

1) Washington Nationals

Harper will mash, Scherzer will break hearts, and Dusty Baker might just have his best season yet as a Major League Baseball manager.

2) San Francisco Giants

What? It is an even year.

giants gif

Thanks for reading.

 

 

The Warning Track is a blog that covers all things Major League Baseball on a fairly consistent basis, from discussing why some teams are getting hot, who’s in line for awards at season’s end and who is getting ready to make the leap to contender status, as well as hot button topics like MLB’s expansion mission, which players could be headed to new homes, and the latest clubhouse chemistry conundrum. 

If you have anything MLB-related that you would like to see discussed in the upcoming edition of The Warning Track, or have any comments at all, you may suggest/comment/rant/agree/disagree/tell me I know nothing about baseball at any time on Twitter @RealDavidLynch.

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The Warning Track: Opening Week

The Warning Track is a blog that covers all things Major League Baseball on a weekly basis, from discussing why some teams are getting hot, who’s in line for awards at season’s end and who is getting ready to make the leap to contender status, as well as off-the-field issues like first-time Commissioner Rob Manfred, which players could be headed to new homes, and A-Rod’s latest lie. 

If you have anything MLB-related that you would like to see discussed in the upcoming edition of The Warning Track, or have any comments at all, you may suggest/comment/rant/agree/disagree/tell me I know nothing about baseball at any time on Twitter @RealDavidLynch. 

 

The Longball Takes Center Stage

It’s a common philosophy with sports, however tough it is to follow at time, not to overreact to anything….especially at the end of Opening Week in baseball, with 155-plus games still to be played.

But it would be unwise not to at least take a look at how the homerun ball dominated the first week of the 2015 season.

Exhibit A: Adrian Gonzalez, who after homering three times in one game earlier in the week, is being affectionately dubbed A-Gone by the baseball world. Gonzalez became the first player to hit five home runs in his team’s first three games of a season, and in the process has early MVP stamped all over him (yes, it’s week 1, but this is what I meant by overreacting).

A-Gone hasn’t hit forty home runs since a career year in 2009, but if he keeps it up he’ll smash that personal record, as well as help break a bigger one that I predicted will happen this year.

Gonzalez isn’t the only one who put on a power display this week. In an Opening Day that was dominated by pitching, the Boston Red Sox unveiled their revamped lineup in style, hitting five moonshots in an 8-0 victory over the Phillies.

Just as impressive? Four of them were hit off of Cole Hamels, who is trying to impress other teams as he will almost surely be wearing a different uniform by the trade deadline this summer.

I’ve got to admit…I thought Boston came into this season a little overrated. When you acquire the big-name talent they did in the offseason – Pablo Sandoval, who pretty much becomes Babe Ruth in October, as well as ex-Dodger Hanley Ramirez – people are either going to label you as automatic postseason contenders…or see the club as one that may have trouble developing a homogeneous identity.

I belong to the latter. I just got the sense that this team would have a tough time gelling together, spending too much of the season trying to form a clubhouse dynamic that once they did it would be too late.

Then again, when you have the pure power that the BoSox showed off on Monday, that doesn’t matter as much. Homers score runs, and scoring runs wins games.

Another home run display to note, although just a single longball…A-Rod’s first since September of 2013.

Although that alone will add drama to the hit, the real story – now that we know supposedly-steroid-free-Alex-Rodriguez can still hit ‘em far and hit ‘em deep – is what happens if he when he hits five more and passes Willie Mays for fourth all time on the career homer list.

When he does, the Yankees, per the contract they gave him in 2007, are obligated to pay him a $6 million bonus…something they said in the offseason they will no longer do.

It’s a shame, really, to see what once was a journey toward making epic major league history become a cheating-fueled soap opera of undeserved greatness.

However.

As polarizing as A-Rod and his legacy has become – to this writer especially – the Yankees should do their due diligence once he gets to that mark, and you know he will. Aside from the fact that the Yankees already popped up to shallow left by putting the bonus in a signed contract…his home runs will be helping the Yanks win games, and they should thank him as they are contractually obligated to do so.

He’s still Alex Rodriguez, which means he puts the Jeter-less Yankees on an entirely other tier, maybe not in terms of competition but in recognition. Paying his bonus is the least they can do to compensate for his services.

Home runs provided plenty of storylines and drama in Opening Week. In what has become the Golden Age of Pitching, let’s hope it stays that way.

 

On the Cusp of Going to Infinity and Beyond in Houston

The Houston Astros, perennial cellar dwellers for the better part of the last decade, are making their way to the stairs.

Slowly. But ever so surely.

Much like the position the Cubs occupied in recent years, Houston is full-on retooling, rearming, and reenergizing their fanbase with a team that should only be a year or two away from playing .500 baseball.

Their youngsters, high picks resulting from last-place regular season finishes, are the Kris Bryants and Jose Fernandez’s of tomorrow. Players like George Springer and Dallas Keuchel are on the cusp of breaking into their own and leading this team.

The Astros, like the Cubs were a couple years back, are on the brink of relevance. And general manager Jeff Luhnow knows it, which is why he manufactured one of the busiest offseasons the Astros have had in recent memory, however much it was shaded by the offseason lusting spending of other teams (looking at you, San Diego, Boston).

Beyond acquiring new manager A.J. Hinch, Luhnow went out and nabbed All-Star relief pitcher Pat Neshek as well as Jed Lowrie and basher Evan Gattis.

And don’t forget about star Jose Altuve, who led the league in hits in 2014 with an astounding 225. When a guy puts in this kind of effort, opposing pitchers know he’s never going to be an easy out.

The Astros have a healthy dose of young – very young – guys and experienced players. They’re 2-2 on the young season (as of the time I am writing this) and were already very nearly held hitless in a 5-1 loss to the Indians on Thursday. Needless to say, it was the kind of game that we’ve come to expect from Houston’s club.

At a time when the National League is experiencing a wealth of young talent, Springer hopes to make the same kind of impact in the American League

At a time when the National League is experiencing a wealth of young talent, Springer hopes to make the same kind of impact in the American League

But they’ve also had victories that have showcased their potential, like a 5-1 score going in their favor against the lowly Rangers on Friday, in which Lowrie and newcomer Colby Rasmus both homered and Collin McHugh gave a sterling first start of the season after delighting fans with a 7-0 record and 1.77 ERA in ten starts as a rookie last season.

But if Houston is going to entice their fans with any kind of major  jump this season, it’s going to have to be on George Springer, their budding face of the franchise who hit 20 home runs and drove in 51 in 78 games in 2014, his rookie season. With Major League Baseball abuzz over the arrivals of Joc Pederson, Jorge Soler and soon-to-be-big league superstar Kris Bryant, the baseball world isn’t paying too much attention to Springer.

They’ll regret that.

So keep your heads high, Astros fans. The torment is almost over.

astros fail

 

 

I See Your Pace-of-Play Rules and Raise You A Marathon

How ironic is it that soon after major pace-of-play rules meant to shorten game length are introduced to regular season baseball, we get an epic 19-inning battle as part of the fiercest rivalry in American sports?

The Red Sox and Yankees battled for the length of two baseball games, and then added another inning for good measure before Boston finally pulled out a 6-5 victory 6 hours and 49 minutes after first pitch. It came close to being the first 20-inning game since 2013, and only the fifth this millennia.

Oh and the game set some records for two already historic franchises.

Take that, pace of play rules. Even you can’t take away one of the most unique aspects of baseball – it ain’t over till it’s over.

Truthfully, we should thank the Red Sox and Yankees for giving us a game like this at a time when Commissioner Rob Manfred is working so hard to quicken the game to supposedly appeal to a younger crowd of sports fans.

The means are worth experimenting but in my opinion that motivation driving the initiative is going to hurt the sport.

Just let ‘em play. True baseball fans won’t leave the game as the clock ticks closer and closer until morning just because it goes on for a little longer. When are extra innings not tense? Every base hit has added drama, every defensive play more weight, every inning a chance for walk-off victory for the home crowd.

If baseball fans can’t see the fun in that, whether young or old, then they probably don’t appreciate the game like some people would say it’s meant to be experienced – as naturally as possible.

Sometimes the nature of baseball takes a game twice as long as it is meant to go, and by the baseball gods….let ‘em play. And allow what makes the sport so special to be on display for the true baseball fan, the kind who doesn’t care if it takes nine innings or 19 to decide an outcome.

So thank you, Red Sox and Yankees. For giving us a nailbiter. For giving spectators two games for the price of one. For reminding us why we love your sport.

bosox

 

David Lynch likes to talk about and write about movies, sports, and important happenings around the world. He can be reached at alex.695@hotmail.com or on Twitter @RealDavidLynch. He is a student at the University of New Mexico.