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Standings check: What rises and falls are in the forecast

You can make all the predictions you want in spring training, but none of that matters when the games start. Now that it is more than a quarter of the way through the season, the hot and cold starts become legitimate indications of where teams will end up in October.

Are the Astros and Rockies the best teams in baseball? Which rebuilding team is ahead of schedule? Who is going to make a run before the All-Star break? Our experts make their predictions.

What’s the first thing that jumps out to you when you look at the standings right now?

Buster Olney: The three-team scrum in the NL West, which could greatly alter the wild-card landscape and make it much more difficult for teams in other divisions — the Mets in the East; the Cubs, Cardinals, Brewers and Pirates in the Central; and the Giants in the West — to find room in the wild-card standings. I thought the Rockies and Diamondbacks would be better, but I didn’t anticipate the NL West potentially fielding three of the top four records.

Sam Miller: How many “rebuilding” teams are in the thick of things. Last year’s standings were so predictably divided between the teams that were trying and the ones that were not that baseball’s unpredictability seemed in peril. This year, the Twins, Rockies, Brewers, Reds and Diamondbacks are re-establishing baseball as the Hope & Faith sport Bud Selig always dreamed of.

David Schoenfield: The three-way race in the NL West — one that doesn’t include the Giants. The impressive thing is there hasn’t been anything fluky in those results, as the Rockies and Diamondbacks have large run differentials, along with the Dodgers. The Rockies are winning on the road, Arizona’s rotation has been stellar with the fifth-best ERA in the majors, and the Dodgers’ depth has been a huge factor, with rookie Cody Bellinger bombing home runs and Alex Wood pitching like an All-Star.

The Astros and Rockies have the best record in each league. Is it time to consider them the two best teams?

Olney: The Rockies have been so reliant on rookie pitching that you wonder if those guys will hold up in August and September. But the Astros look like the AL’s best team — and baseball’s best team — now that Dallas Keuchel has returned to being a Cy Young candidate and Lance McCullers is healthy. There are high expectations within the industry that the Astros will trade for a starting pitcher and a reliever before the deadline to strengthen an already great team.

Miller: The Astros, yes. While the Yankees have arguably played better — if you look at underlying offensive and defensive performances, and strength of schedule — the Astros have a stronger, deeper roster. The Rockies haven’t lucked into their wins by any means, but the adage that no team is as good as it looks when it’s winning is true here. Colorado is better than we gave it credit for, but it’s more of a .500 roster.

Schoenfield: No. You can easily make a case for the Nationals or Dodgers as the best team in the NL, and don’t discount the Cubs from going on a big run at some point to get back into that discussion. The Astros certainly appear to be without any major weaknesses, but the rotation is thin, and they’re relying heavily on Keuchel and McCullers to keep pitching like a pair of aces. I expect better baseball from the Indians, and David Price‘s return should boost the Red Sox.

Which team is headed for a big rise or drop in the standings in the future?

Olney: The Indians have a deep lineup and a great bullpen, and the return of Corey Kluber should help their rotation get back in order. Two other factors might help the Indians: First, the Cleveland ownership is all-in to try to win in 2017 and 2018, so if roster needs develop, the Indians will do what it takes to plug holes before the July 31 deadline. Second, depending on how the Royals and Tigers play, each of those teams might consider summer sell-offs, which could help the playoff chances of division rivals.

Miller: I expect the Rays to push the Yankees in the East. They have the AL’s second-best offense and second-best pitching, according to Baseball Prospectus’ advanced metrics. Over a full season, we expect results to catch up with underlying performances, which suggest the Rays should be scoring more runs, allowing fewer runs and winning more games than they have.

Schoenfield: The Twins have a little smoke-and-mirrors going on with the rotation, but maybe we’re already seeing one team drop. The Orioles were flying high at 22-10, but have lost 13 of 16 since, including a seven-game losing streak heading into Memorial Day. You can’t blame just the starting rotation, as they’re just ninth in the AL in runs. In the tough AL East, the Orioles need to turn things around this week as they play the Yankees and Red Sox.

Which team’s place in the standings right now is the most disappointing (and do you think they can turn it around)?

Olney: The Giants. Rival evaluators saw signs of trouble in spring training, signs of aging, but between Madison Bumgarner‘s motorbike accident and the lack of depth in the lineup, their problems have only deepened. Their outfield production has been easily the worst in baseball, and unless that stabilizes just a little and Bumgarner comes back better than ever in late July, it’s hard to imagine them making a run at the NL West leaders. But I’m also surprised that the Indians have not played better to this point, especially with Michael Brantley part of the everyday lineup and with the Cleveland bullpen being so dominant. I still think the Indians will win this division handily, although they might need to add one of the many starting pitchers who will be available this summer.

Miller: The Royals defied all of our expectations, conventional wisdom and projections for three years, but last year failed to. They could blame injuries for that, but this year’s performance has collapsed. They’ve been the AL’s worst team so far, with no indications of bad luck or a looming turnaround.

Schoenfield: The Giants have dug themselves a big hole, but I’m going with the Cubs. In our preseason predictions, all 35 of us picked the Cubs to win the NL Central. They’ve hardly looked like the dominant team that made that forecast so easy. The rotation has a 4.50 ERA; heck, the Mariners have a 4.59 rotation ERA and have used 12 different starting pitchers. Once you get past Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Ben Zobrist, there are legitimate OBP issues, especially with Kyle Schwarber. I still expect them to win the division, but it’s not going to be a landslide victory.

Which team’s place in the standings is the biggest surprise in a good way (and do you think they can keep it up)?

Olney: The Twins, who have gotten great work out of Ervin Santana and a recent injection from Jose Berrios. Their pitching is better and Miguel Sano has become one of the best and biggest threats in the middle of any order, with the damage he is doing.

Miller: The Yankees were more credible going into the season than most of our predictions said, but there was no reason to expect elite. They have the AL’s best offense and pitching, according to BP. I don’t think they can keep that level up, but this is a playoff team and one that will be one of the most fun and colorful to watch in October.

Schoenfield: The Twins. At the start of the season, I saw them as a team projected to win in the low 70s. Thanks to hot starts from Santana (a league-leading 1.80 ERA entering Monday’s start) and Sano (tied for second in the AL in RBIs), they’ve played some good baseball. The defense is better, and if Berrios’ first three starts are legit, maybe the Twins can surprise. But I just don’t see the rotation depth (they’re last in the league in strikeouts) to keep this going, and the offense isn’t powerful enough to carry the pitching.

What do you think the Yankees’ final record will be and why?

Olney: 93-69. They have a deep roster and I’d bet they’ll trade for one of the better controllable starters in the market — a Sonny Gray, a Gerrit Cole or a Jose Quintana.

Miller: 91-71. It’s a tough division and, without much pitching depth, they’re a little bit more vulnerable to a rotation-altering injury than most of their competition.

Schoenfield: I’ll go 91-71. I had them winning the wild card at the start of the season, so I liked them more than most teams. Aaron Judge‘s emergence makes them even better, and they have the farm system to make a couple of trades in July, especially if they need to add a starting pitcher. The offense has been the best in the league, and that’s without any production from first base. Sorry, Yankees haters, this is a good team.

What do you think the Cubs’ final record will be and why?

Olney: 92-70. I think there will be a bounce-back, but the lack of rotation depth and the struggles of Schwarber are becoming more serious with each passing week.

Miller: 91-71. It usually takes more than 50 games to drastically reconsider a team’s talent level. It would take more than 162 games for me to drastically reconsider a team as obviously good as the Cubs are. It remains a practically perfect roster and a practically perfect organization.

Schoenfield: I’ll go 91-71. You can call it a World Series hangover. I’ll call it a slow start. The starting pitchers can’t really pitch any worse, but as bad as Jake Arrieta and John Lackey have been, they still have excellent strikeout rates, suggesting better results moving forward. Rizzo, Schwarber, Addison Russell and Willson Contreras are all capable of better production. I think the Cubs go on a 20-5 run at some point and win the division.

Quick predictions reset — give us your division winners and wild cards?

Olney: I don’t like to do resets. I’ll stick with my preseason picks, both bad (Jays and Mariners as division winners) and good (Yankees as a playoff team).

Miller: In the American League, the division winners are Astros, Indians and Yankees; and the wild cards are Rays and Red Sox.

In the National League, the division winners are Dodgers, Cubs and Nationals; and the wild cards are Cardinals and Rockies.

Schoenfield: In the AL, the division winners are Red Sox, Indians and Astros; and the wild cards are Yankees and Rays.

In the NL, the division winners are Nationals, Cubs and Dodgers; and the wild cards are Rockies and Diamondbacks.

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