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.

The Warning Track: Week 3

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. 

 

Why ya gotta be so rude?

Early in the week, Cincinnati Reds manager Bryan Price continued a recent trend by sports figures of questioning media methods and the overall importance of sports journalists.

He didn’t exactly take the Marshawn Lynch route, either. Price went on a red-hot (ha) profanity laden rant in which he used “f***” 77 times during a cringeworthy criticism of a reporter from the Cincinnati Enquirer who was just doing his job, reporting that catcher Devin Mesoraco was unavailable for last Sunday’s game due to injury.

But Price didn’t see it that way. Apparently he’s stuck in the 60s because he confronts the reporter, C. Trent Rosecrans, as if he were a Cold War spy trying to infiltrate the Reds organization for his own nefarious means.

It made for sensational, if not entertaining, news on Monday; a byproduct no doubt of the Reds’ early season struggles – they were coming off a sweep at the hands of St. Louis at the time of the all-time classic rant. It seemed like it was going to follow a familiar script – Price goes off on a victim unjustly and unjustifiably, it makes the rounds on social media, late-night shows crack jokes about it, and Price apologizes the next morning, saying he didn’t mean a word.

It pretty much went that way on Tuesday, except for one thing.

So even after taking a full day to cool off, Price takes us deep into the inner workings of his mind to reveal that he doesn’t understand the basic duty of journalism and its primary loyalties: the truth and the public.

And yes, Mr. Price, that includes “sniff[ing] out every f***ing thing about the Reds and f***ing put[ting] it out there for every other f***ing guy to hear.” Lesson one: that is essence of a journalist’s job.

You’re right; it may not benefit your team, but you’ve got to understand that you’re not the only ones suffering at the torment and unspeakably evil methods of local journalism. Every other professional sports team goes through the exact same thing, and members of those teams understand – I hope – their relationship with reporters and how it must be conducted.

And no, as a matter of fact, whatever Mr. Rosecrans chooses to write and publish does not have to benefit the Reds as you so passionately believe it should. That is not real journalism, that is censorship.

This is baseball, not warfare (well okay, maybe, of a much different kind). Your argument questioning the media’s decision-making on what and what not to write is like Mr. Rosecrans demanding why the Reds aren’t playing during a rain delay because he’d have no story to write.

 

Bryan Price has a couple things to learn when it comes to contributing to local journalism.

Bryan Price has a couple things to learn when it comes to contributing to local journalism.

I’ll cut you the smallest sliver of slack since this is your first year as a manager and, thus, you are in a fairly unfamiliar role. But I suggest you get used to reporters “f***ing blowing it all over the f***ing place” because, win or loss, Spring Training or World Series, that is precisely what they make a living off of.

So be clear on your role, Mr. Price, and the role of reporters like Mr. Rosecrans. He was doing his job just like he was supposed to. You work in a fairly public industry that yields news on a daily basis. Refusing to contribute to it would be neglecting your job as leader of a major league ballclub.

This isn’t “f***ing b*******”, Mr. Price. This is 2015. Get with it.

 

The Kansas City Brawlers

Something interesting has been happening with the Royals lately.

They’ve shown a keen interest in not only winning games this year – they are RECORD – but also making sure they don’t complete nine innings without confronting the opponent in some ways more physical than the unwritten but universal law of baseball dictates.

After getting through a tense series with the Athletics last weekend that feature a couple of ejections and hit batters, the Royals, “led” by Yordano Ventura, once again set off some fireworks against the White Sox this week, leading to some big name players being booted out.

Maybe the MLB’s newfound fastidiousness is getting to them.

This is every baseball fan’s guilty pleasure. In a sport that has been termed “limited-contact” as opposed to rough-and-tumble games in football and basketball, most fans secretly welcome the chance to see some extracurricular activity out of the diamond. I’ll admit it, I do.

C’mon, when have you ever missed a baseball bout and were sorry that you weren’t there to witness it?

But the Royals are taking that to a whole other level, seemingly taking their frustration over a World Series loss out on other teams. Just two weeks into the season they have a culture surrounding them, like a fight between the Royals and their opponent is something to be expected.

And why shouldn’t they be labeled that way? So what if they get on the league’s bad side for having a fire more brightly lit than some other teams? It never leads to any travesty, apart from some bruises on hitters and a couple of ejections and slaps on the wrist.

Whatever motivates the Royals, even if that means the bullpens come rushing in as umpires try to break up a scuffle, I say go for it. Because I’ll be damned if these Kansas City Brawlers and their methods of conducting themselves on the field don’t intimidate future opponents at least a little bit.

Don’t get me wrong. Baseball as a sport shouldn’t become more prone or tolerant of fights occurring regularly. That would ruin the nature of the sport itself.

But i’ll be damned if I don’t respect the Royals a little more than I did two weeks ago. They’ve got the best record in the American League. Why change that culture?

I mean, unless this kind of stuff happens as a result.

 

 

 

Slow Starts or Scarred Seasons?

It’s still the beginning of the season, which means pitcher’s arms are fresh and they’re dominating the competition.

At least, some pitchers are.

Some hurlers that have started out 2015 as expected – Max Scherzer, Johnny Cueto, Sonny Gray and virtually the entire St. Louis Cardinals staff – are tearing up the league, a somewhat traditional way to kick off the baseball calendar. They’re on a level all their own.

Then there’s a middle tier of pitchers who have uncharacteristically been jumped on by opposing batters in major ways, digging holes for their clubs early in games.

That group includes the likes of CC Sabathia, Madison Bumgarner, and reigning Best Player On The Face Of The Planet Clayton Kershaw, who has been almost anything but this season. Their ERAs – between 4.00 and teetering on 6.00 – aren’t quite inflated to disaster but they are scary statistics nonetheless.

Those three players in particular raise different levels of concern.

Sabathia, who actually dropped his ERA by more than a full run with a good last outing against the hot-hitting Tigers, has been prone to struggle recently. He hasn’t been a consistent ace since 2011, when he was a Cy Young candidate, and most of his starts are an extreme hit or miss. So maybe his 14 years in the bigs have finally caught up to him, and his age – 34 – is a telling sign that he may be done.

Note: As i’m editing The Warning Track, Girardi is taking out Sabathia after giving up six runs and nine hits (three homers) against the Mets. Ouch. 

Bumgarner’s a different story – the guy’s ten years younger for starters. He’s pitching to the tune of a 4.63 ERA thus far, way below what we’ve come to expect after consecutive season of sub-3.00, and even more so when you take into account his worst season ERA is an average 3.37 from 2012.

bumgarner sads

However, Bumgarner’s slow start may be more cause for concern than with other pitchers. His struggles thus far are coming at the cost of the Giant’s World Series run last October, in which Bumgarner reached legendary status, due to his pitching an astronomical 52.2 innings, the most in any single postseason in history. There were concerns in the offseason about if his usage in October amounted to overusage, resulting in a down year this season. Thus far, it looks like that may just be the case.

Kershaw presents the most puzzling circumstance of all. He’s young, he barely pitched in October when St. Louis knocked out the Dodgers, and, most importantly, he’s Clayton f***ing Kershaw, to use Brian Price’s language.

Maybe it’s tough for Kershaw to keep improving after having sub-2.00 ERAs each of the last two seasons, but Kershaw simply has not resembled the person immortal deity who has won three of the last four National League Cy Youngs.

He’s failed to get through 7 innings in each of his starts this year, and though his strikeout numbers are there – 9, 5, 12, and 9 through four starts – he also has yet to not allow an earned run. As picky as that is, we know Kershaw is capable of it.

But the most telling stat from Kershaw’s early-season sluggishness? In an April 12th game against the Diamondbacks, he gave up ten hits. He never gave up ten hits at any point last season.

Now we get to the bottom tier, the established veterans and supposed aces who have resembled anything but in the early going. This group includes the likes of Jon Lester and Kyle Lohse, off to some of the most disappointing starts of any player in baseball.

Lester, signed by the Cubs in the offseason to be their ace as they began their long-awaited crusade to October, boasts sports an inflated 6.23 ERA through four starts, giving up at least three runs in each start. He has his moss Lester-esque game in his last start against the Reds on Friday, in which he set a season high in strikeouts (10) and looking fairly comfortable for the first time this season.

Plus, who can argue with how awesome this was?

And maybe the tides really are changing for the new Cubbie. Lester’s Spring Training was cut short due to his experiencing some dead arm, so perhaps his first couple starts were just an extension of getting fully ready for the the rest of the season. One thing’s for sure: If the Cubs want any chance of reaching the postseason in 2015, they’re going to need Lester to be at his best.

Journeyman Kyle Lohse has had a similar script through his first four games. After three straight starts of giving up at least four runs in a less-than-mediocre start to 2015, he finally broke through on Thursday, allowing only two earned runs in seven innings of work to bring his ERA under 10.00 and snap a prolonged losing streak for the Brew Crew. Only time will tell if the consistent Lohse is here to stay.

In an era of pitching dominance, it’s unusual to see so many superstar hurlers struggle against offenses, especially in the National League. Seeing when they break out of their slumps – if they break out of their slumps – will be an interesting storyline to examine over the next few weeks.

 

 

Reunited, but will it feel so good?

In the latest chapter of one of the more fascinating off-field stories of 2015 – albeit for all the wrong reasons – the Angels and Rangers, two teams trending in opposite directions, have agreed on a deal that would send troubled outfielder Josh Hamilton back to Texas, his home from 2008 to 2012.

Getting back with your ex is rarely a great idea, especially when the breakup wasn’t so smooth.

But once in a while, you realize that your life has become so dull that you need to inject yourself with some excitement that has the potential to turn into a better relationship than you had before.

And that’s what the Rangers are betting on. They’re in some bumpy waters for the second straight year, due in no small part to being seemingly cursed with endless injuries. There really isn’t very much team chemistry or momentum that Hamilton, whose past ghosts came back to haunt him in the form of a drug relapse in the offseason, could distort.

Even better for Texas: of the five-year, $125 million that the Angels singed him for in 2012, the Rangers will only be expected to pay around $7 million. Not bad for a former MVP who averages 32 homers a season. It’s virtually a steal for the Rangers, should Hamilton get his life back on track, and his former teammates have said they will do all they can to help him do so. 

This deal is about as win-win as deals go. The Angels, who had a productive but relatively average season from Hamilton in 2013 (he missed half of 2014 with injury), are gunning for the World Series, and they can’t have Hamilton, a walking distraction, taking their mind off of October for one second.

They wouldn’t have made the move if they weren’t content with his replacements, and they already have a couple of in-house options for left field. Matt Joyce, acquired in the offseason, is no doubt a dropoff from what Hamilton provided – his career year in 2011 yielded 19 longballs and 75 RBI to go along with a .277 average – but they also have Grant Green, a career .309 hitter in the minor leagues, waiting in the wings.

As far as what Hamilton brings (back) to the Rangers, he is an astronomical upgrade over Jake Smolinski and Carlos Peguero, who have combined for one home run and four RBI. And once the team gets healthy – because they have to, eventually – and a couple of their stars like Prince Fielder and Adrian Beltre get things rolling and playing like the stars that all of major league baseball knows they are, the Rangers might just find that Hamilton is, ironically, the piece they’ve been missing since he left.

As far as reconciling with your ex? Well, we’ll just have to see the kind of reception the fans give him.

 

Other thoughts from the week

  • A pretty cool thing happened this week
  • https://twitter.com/ESPNStatsInfo/status/590995607315226627
  • The Cardinals rotation, so far, is everything the Nationals were supposed to be, and might still be at some point. But between St. Louis staff and bullpen, they’re on a historic pace.
  • The NL West is already contentious, with the Dodgers, Padres and Rockies all at ten wins. With a potentially surprising club in the Diamondbacks looming at 8-8, that division might just be the most exciting in baseball.
  • The Cubs are hanging in there early in the season, 9-7 and in second place in the NL Central. How long can they keep it up?
  • And WHEN will Kris Bryant hit his first home run??
  • Dusty Baker, last with the Reds, is reportedly yearning to manage again. The Miami Marlins’ Mike Redmond is reportedly on the hot seat. Good timing?
  • Snow in a regular season baseball game? Climate change is real, people.

Have a great week, baseball fans. Let’s see if A-Rod can hit two more.

 

 

 

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.