I would like to start with a disclaimer: For a significant portion of my adult life, I have hated baseball.
It wasn’t so much that I hated the idea of baseball. I was just much more focused on other sports going on at the same time: the NBA Playoffs, the NHL Playoffs, the Masters, the Triple Crown, and of course, football. And being someone who used to work in a TV studio production environment where all sports had to be covered, I viewed baseball as more of a nuisance than anything. I’d be working on content for the NBA Finals, and a squirrel would run on the field at the Mariners game, or there would be a brawl, or Mike Trout would do … anything, and I’d have to focus part of my attention on that. It made me grow to really resent baseball, and wish it would go away for all but a few weeks in July.
But now in my current role here, away from the TV world, all it took was one thought of a giant prop list for day games on Wednesdays to make me say…Welcome back, baseball! You’re the best! I never said anything bad about you.
As part of my welcoming the sport back into my life, I went on a 72-hour binge-a-thon cram session to put myself in a place to offer you advice. Having read everything above, you may outright dismiss it, but at least acknowledge that given my brief track record on things so far at this fine establishment, I may have something to offer. What I’m saying is, keep an open mind, which is more than I can say than I did during a lot of the past few baseball seasons. Here are some thoughts:
Best bet on a team to make the playoffs: Indians -700
I have to start with an easy one, right? Just so I don’t get egg on my face this early in the preview. The difference between Cleveland and everyone else in the division is downright hilarious. The non-Minnesota teams are all simultaneously rebuilding, and the Minnesota team appears headed for 85 wins with a low ceiling. You could also play the Indians to win the division at -400-ish in places, but considering that there is some non-zero chance Minnesota can win the division, why even bother? Just take free money. Does the book get to hold your money for six months? Yes, it does. But think of this as an investment, like the “Cleveland Indians High-Yield 6-month CD” and you’ll feel better.
Best price on a team to make the playoffs: Blue Jays +240
A team that’s pretty good at a lot of things, and great at very little. Not exactly a recipe for postseason success, but can they win 88-90 games and get a wild-card spot? Of course!
First, I’ll give a bit of a spoiler: I’m down on the Red Sox. In addition, the Rays seem primed for a 65-70 win season, and the Orioles may trade away their pieces if they’re out of the mix. That sets up pretty well for Toronto (and also assumes the Yankees will be dominant, which they probably will be, but who knows).
In Toronto, I get a team with a legitimate No. 1 starter in Marcus Stroman, and an elite closer in Roberto Osuna. I get starting pitching depth with J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada, and upside guys in Aaron Sanchez and Jaime Garcia. You can go through a season with that group. I get a lineup that is admittedly old and getting older, but with very few weak spots and a legitimate star in Josh Donaldson. It’s not so much that I think they’re a lock for the playoffs, just that they’re +240 and I think the division shapes up pretty well for them.
Best bet on a team to miss the playoffs: Mariners -280
The AL West figures to be a real bloodbath this year. Not only are the Astros amazing again, and seem virtually a lock to succeed on at least a playoff-clinching level, but all four other teams, on some level, have reasonable aspirations for the year as well. The Angels think they can be a wild-card team, and the A’s and Rangers think they can at least get to .500. To me, the team whose price least reflects their actual chances of making the playoffs is Seattle.
Let’s start with what the Mariners have going for them. James Paxton has developed into a legitimate front-line starter. Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz are getting older but still capable of high-level of productivity. Kyle Seager is a nice third baseman, at least top-10 in the league.
… And that’s about it for the Mariners! See ya next week, folks!
No, but really. What else is there to get excited about here? I look at the roster and I see an old, fatigued Felix Hernandez, a crazy amount of question marks at starting pitcher after that (they’re trying to bring back Hisashi Iwakuma … neat), an average bullpen, and Dee Gordon trying to play center field. I just don’t think this team has nearly enough to make a run at the wild card. Oh, and Cano’s power may be on the decline, if last year was any indication.
We know the Twins will be in the AL wild-card mix solely because of the schedule (I don’t even really like them that much, but can’t they just sort-of sleepwalk to at least 80-85 wins?), and Boston, Toronto, and some combination of other AL West teams have at least semi-reasonable chances. There’s a large crowd potentially for the final two spots, and to me, it’s more likely a younger team emerges, rather than this incomplete Seattle group, where the three best players not named James Paxton all may be too old to perform at an elite level.
Best price on a team to miss the playoffs: Red Sox +220
In the Spring of 2003, I had one of the better seasons of my young life. I was a freshman in college. I dated women who were completely out of my league. I had no classes on Fridays. I was completely unbeatable at FIFA 2003.
But that wasn’t sustainable. A combination of growing older and more unlucky, along with Friday class, and a much worse graphics-control scheme in FIFA 2004, spelled the end of that run before I even knew what had happened.
Amazing seasons are rarely sustainable.
In 2017, Chris Sale was the first American League pitcher to strike out 300 batters since 1999. His strikeout rate (36.2, if you care) was third-best … in baseball HISTORY (among ERA-qualified pitchers). His FIP was a full run below (!!!) his 2016 season. He may have just completed a year that ranks with any Red Sox pitching season ever. What is the likelihood that that type of season repeats itself?
Meanwhile, Craig Kimbrel, Boston’s closer, just completed probably the best season of his career. His strikeout and walk rates were career-highs, and although he only posted 35 saves, his WHIP and FIP dropped to staggeringly low numbers when compared to the rest of his seasons. Again, is that sustainable?
There are other reasons to dislike Boston a little more than most people do — the unknown of Alex Cora as a manager, or the fact that they are average or worse compared to the rest of the league at four offensive positions, and that doesn’t include Rafael Devers who is an unknown at this early point in his career.
But the primary point I am making here, is that a lot of the Red Sox’s projections involve Sale and Kimbrel being incredible. And they are, in fact, the two most likely players on the team to regress. Most importantly, the gap between them and the rest of their peers in the rotation and the bullpen is massive, much wider than for most other teams.
Best win total bet (that isn’t a team I’ve mentioned already): Rays under 74.5
There are going to be plenty of awful teams this year (many of them in the AL Central), but many of those awful teams get to play each other a lot.
The Rays get to play the Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays more than 50 times. They suffered some starting pitching significant injuries prior to the season which have led them to declare they’re going with a four-man rotation. This isn’t crazy significant because of the team’s schedule early on, where you could use four starters pretty easily. But the idea that this is a strategy worth trying hints at the dire potential of the situation, never mind the fact that the bullpen is maybe the worst it’s been there in a long time.
The team’s best reliever is Alex Colome by a pretty wide margin, but his statistics indicate he’s probably getting worse. The bigger problem is, if he outperforms those statistics, they probably have to trade him to get value. This is a microcosm of why the under is such a good idea here.
We haven’t even begun to talk about the offense yet, which is virtually guaranteed to be anemic because of the players they’ve brought in. They are well below average at all four infield positions compared to the rest of the league, and have Carlos Gomez in right field, with platooning Denard Span/Mallex Smith in left alongside Kevin Kiermaier, the one good player in the batting order. In short, it may be a long season in Tampa.
Top photo: Boston pitcher Chris Sale