[Author’s note: this article was written before the beginning of the games on April 1.]
The grass is green and the air smells like hot dogs and popcorn. It’s the most wonderful time of the year. No, it’s not the holiday season; it’s something even better. A new MLB season has dawned and hope is in the air. An optimist would tell you that, in April, all thirty clubs think they have a chance of winning the World Series this year. A realist would say that roughly ten teams, if not less, have a legitimate shot to win it all. The truth lies somewhere in between. There’s the usual cast of contenders (the Yankees, the Red Sox, and the Dodgers) but it’s a safe bet that, for better or worse, some teams will surprise us.
While we’re still staring at the long wind of a 162-game long season, it’s impossible to accurately predict what will happen. In the wonderful sport of baseball, (almost) anything is possible (it would take many miracles for the Orioles and Marlins to make it to the World Series). But it’s still helpful, and fun, to wonder how the chips will fall throughout the summer and into the fall. Which teams will make it to the postseason? Who will defy expectations? Read on to see how we think the 2019 MLB season will unfold.
1. The Dodgers will win the NL.
The National League is fascinating this year. Whereas the American league is top-heavy, the senior circuit seems comparatively open. The NL East is expected to be a slugfest between the breakout Braves, the retooled Nationals and Mets, and the loaded Phillies, who signed a certain star outfielder this offseason. It’s easy to pick the Phillies because they have Bryce Harper but any of these four teams have a chance to win the division. (Sorry, Miami.)
The NL Central is similarly stacked. The Brewers had a great season last year and will look to continue their growth. The Cardinals traded for star 1B Paul Goldschmidt, who joins an impressive roster. The Cubs are still quite talented; the core of their 2016 World Series is still intact. But the pressure’s on manager Joe Maddon after a disappointing 2018. The Reds are a popular dark horse pick: they rebuilt their starting rotation and added polarizing outfielder Yasiel Puig. Cincinnati also has Joey Votto, one of the best first basemen in the game. Even the Pirates look like they could make the playoffs, if everything breaks right.
Then, there’s the NL West. The Diamondbacks, after trading away Goldschmidt, are on the verge of a rebuild. The Rockies have made the playoffs two years in a row but they’re not a dominant team. You might have heard that the Padres signed Manny Machado, but they’re probably a year away from serious contention. So, the Dodgers find themselves in prime position to win their seventh consecutive division title.
After yet another year that ended in postseason heartbreak, Los Angeles has to break through, eventually, right? Why not this year? On paper, none of the other teams in the NL look dominant. At the very least, the Dodgers (and their stacked farm system) have the talent to repeat as NL Champions.
2. The Astros will win the AL
Then, there’s the AL. The Yankees, Red Sox and Astros seem primed to remain the powerhouses of the league. Despite cutting costs (and talent) in the offseason, the Indians are favored to win the weak AL Central. Then, there are dark horse teams. The Rays continue to defy conventional wisdom and win with a stunningly low payroll. Can they keep revolutionizing the game by using openers and other new strategies? They could just as easily come crashing back to earth. Likewise, the Athletics returned to their “Moneyball” ways last year and made the playoffs but few analysts feel confident predicting Oakland’s return to the postseason. The Twins had a down year in 2018 but, after adding Nelson Cruz and a handful of other free agents during the offseason, Minnesota could challenge Cleveland in the AL Central. But, for the Twins to succeed, a lot of “ifs” need to work in their favor (if Byron Buxton has a break out season, if they score more runs, etc.).
Otherwise, the AL is full of sellers. Detroit and Kansas City are rebuilding. Seattle traded away a number of top players, like James Paxton, so they’re clearly tearing it down. The White Sox made a run at Machado and fell short; despite the hype surrounding Eloy Jimenez, they’re still closer to the basement than the top of the standings. The Rangers are in the middle; they’re not fully rebuilding but they don’t look like world-beaters, either. Toronto is quickly starting over; in the past week, they’ve traded Kendrys Morales and Kevin Pillar. Lastly, the Orioles are going nowhere fast. It’ll be a while before they’re competitive again.
All in all, while acknowledging some room for surprises, the same three teams look to have the AL locked down. Houston’s 2018 season ended earlier than they hoped it would; the Astros won 103 games and they’re hungry for more. With an excellent rotation and several stars on offense, Houston is a safe bet to win the war with Boston and New York.
3. The Dodgers will win the World Series
In this scenario, this year will end in a rematch of the 2017 World Series, where the Astros beat the Dodgers. This time, Los Angeles will turn the tables and prove that money really can buy happiness. In all seriousness, the club has spent an inordinate amount of money (even in today’s game) to create a championship team. Finally, in 2019, Los Angeles will get the job done. At some point, their heartbreak has to pay off, and this looks like the Dodgers’ year.
4. The Orioles will be the worst team in baseball
The Orioles were awful last year and they had Manny Machado and other soon-to-be-traded players for half the year. Now, the cupboard is bare and Baltimore, though it’s hard to fathom, could have an even worse season this year. Predicting that they’ll win less than 2018’s 47 games is a stretch, but Baltimore’s pitching staff is projected to be even more terrible in 2019. The Marlins are slated to be pretty bad in 2019 but there’s some hope on the horizon, as some of their top pitching prospects could join the team this year. Plus, Miami has been immersed in its rebuild for a while, whereas Baltimore’s journey has just begun. As a result, the Orioles look like a lock to be the worst team in baseball.
5. deGrom, Verlander win Cy Youngs; Yelich, Trout win MVPs
Now that Jacob deGrom has been paid, it seems like he’s in prime position to repeat as the NL Cy Young winner. The star pitcher’s run of 25 consecutive quality starts has been incredible and the sky’s the limit for New York’s right-hander. The NL boasts a number of great starters but deGrom is the best of them all. In the AL, Justin Verlander finished close behind Cy Young winner Blake Snell last year. The Astros’ great pitcher will use this second-place finish as motivation to take home the award this year.
As for the MVP award, Christian Yelich’s breakout 2018 season will prove to be legitimate; the sensational outfielder will enjoy another incredible season and he’ll repeat as the MVP of the senior circuit. The AL MVP could go to a number of players. Mookie Betts is one of the favorites, you have to like Jose Altuve’s chances, and Aaron Judge looks to reach new heights. But Mike Trout, fresh off the heels of a record-breaking contract, will remind everyone that he’s the G.O.A.T.
6. (At least) one of the recipients of a mega contract won’t make the playoffs
The Phillies, Angels and Padres will pay an insane amount of money to Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Mike Trout, respectively, in 2019 and for many seasons to come. But money does not automatically produce success. One of these teams is likely to miss the postseason in 2019. The Padres aren’t facing the expectations placed on the Angels and Phillies; San Diego still has a number of top prospects developing in the minors. Sure, the Padres could be a surprise contender this year but they’re playing the long game. The Angels and Phillies want to win now. They’ve mortgaged their futures on their respective star outfielders. Anything less than a postseason appearance would be a crushing disappointment for these franchises.
Given some injuries to stars like Shohei Ohtani, and a general lack of depth, the Angels look more likely to miss the playoffs. But, maybe, the Phillies’ first year in the Harper era will be a failure.