Ahead of the start of the 2018 Major League Baseball season on Thursday, our US Sports guru Mike Carlson provides an in-depth preview for each division and picks out his best outright bets for the new campaign...
"Of course any predictions for the playoffs are crazy now, but in the American League I've taken the big name Yankees over the more balanced Astros; too much went right for Houston last year, and the Yankee combination of power and bullpen is made for post-season success."
Fine lines to consider when betting on baseball
In America, you know spring is truly sprung when baseball teams pack up their gear in Florida or Arizona and head north for the start of the season. It's a time of great optimism for fans of almost all the 30 clubs, as the long season begins.
Baseball is, of course, a quotidien event: over the course of 162 games not only does the unexpected take place regularly, but the odds do tend to even out. This large sample size makes it the most revealing sport statistically, but those stats reflect fine lines you need to consider when you're betting.
The best teams in baseball will lose four out of 10 games, the worst will win four out of ten. The best hitters fail seven times in ten. This makes the daily odds watch over a baseball season an art as well as a science, but it also gives us a basis on which to look forward now at the long trek to the World Series.
Lower spend means fewer contenders
A couple of things to note about this season. There would certainly appear to be a loss of appetite for spending big in free agency. There were few players able to take advantage of bidding wars for their services, even Giancarlo Stanton, the biggest power hitter available, was ticketed for the Yankees as part of Derek Jeter's asset-stripping of the Marlins.
This reflects two phenomena: first the willingness of some teams to take advantage of luxury-tax revenue sharing to make a profit while not necessarily chasing the pennant, and also a trend away from 'three outcomes' baseball: strikeout, walk, or home run.
A number of the big home run hitters available had to wait until late in the process to sign contracts with the only team to make a serious offer. It could be a subtle form of collusion among the owners as much as a change of styles, but the result is that this season the contenders seem to be few in number, and they have separated themselves from the pretenders.
Of course any predictions for the playoffs are crazy now, but in the American League I've taken the big name Yankees over the more balanced Astros; too much went right for Houston last year, and the Yankee combination of power and bullpen is made for post-season success.
In the National League, the Dodgers could pip the Nationals in the playoffs, but as I note below, this is the last year for Washington to make the run we've been waiting for. In individual awards, note that playing for a contender is almost essential for MVP; triple-crown stats (Home runs, runs batted in, and batting average) still dominate advanced stats. Wins are necessary, but not sufficient, for the Cy Young, so pitching for a contender is slightly less important there.
My predictions for 2018
Washington Nationals over New York Yankees
MVP: Jose Altuve, Houston
MVP Contenders: Mike Trout, Angels; Aaron Judge, Yankees, Giancarlo Stanton, Yankees
Dark Horse: Mookie Betts, Boston
Cy Young: Chris Sale, Boston
Cy Young Contenders: Corey Kluber, Cleveland, Luis Severino, Yankees,
Dark Horse: James Paxton, Seattle
MVP Best Bet: Bryce Harper, Washington
MVP Contenders: Nolan Arenado, Colorado, Kris Bryant, Cubs; Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona
Long Shot: Rhys Hopkins, Philadelphia
Cy Young Best Bet: Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
Cy Young Contenders: Max Scherzer, Washington, Zach Grienke Arizona
Long Shot: Noah Snydergaard, Mets
American Division Preview
East Division Team-by-Team Guide
New York Yankees (Division Champs): Forget the weather; the Yankees are the Beast from the East. Adding Staton to last-year's Rookie of the Year, the huge Aaron Judge, and getting Greg Bird back from injury means the New Yorkers have a Murderers Row similar to the days of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. In the bandbox that is Yankee Stadium, fans will be collecting souvenir home runs all season. Sonny Gray will help their rotation, but the key to their pennant hopes lies in a deep bullpen all of whom throw hard.
Boston Red Sox: The Sox's greatest need was a power hitter to replace David Ortiz, and they finally got JD Martinez signed. But they have power outages at key positions, especially first base, and they need to get all their starting pitchers throwing well in the same season. Chris Sale is the ace, and the most consistent. The bullpen, unlike the Yankees, is always an adventure trying to get to closer Craig Kimbrel, though new manager Alex Cora might be more creative. The Sox remain a good bet for a wild card.
Toronto Blue Jays: Josh Donaldson is the star, but they need a repeat season from Justin Smoak and a healthy one from Troy Tulowitzki. Pitcher Aaron Sanchez also finds it hard to get through the season without blisters on the fingers shutting him down, but if he can, he and Marcus Stroman are a good one-two punch.
Baltimore Orioles: An illustration of why 'three outcomes' is going out of fashion: Chris Davis is in the midst of a $161 million contract, but batted only .215, hit only 26 dingers, and struck out 195 times. In fact the Os could start seven hitters who fanned more than 115 times last year.
Tampa Bay Rays: After four straight losing seasons the Rays continued to rebuild, letting long-time cornerstone Evan Longoria go. Their younger players are probably a year off from threatening to contend.
Central Division Team-by-Team Guide
Cleveland Indians (Division Champs): Terry 'Tito' Francona has a strong pitching staff led by ace starter Corey Kluber, but they will face challenges this year in the division. Tito will shuffle his players in and out of positions and the lineup, especially trying to sort out a log-jam at catcher and a problem between first and third bases.
Minnesota Twins: Late in Spring Training the Twins added power hitter Logan Morrison and starter Lance Lynn, and suddenly became dark horses in the division and for a wild card. Last year I went to one Twins' game and saw Byron Buxton hit an inside the park home run, nearly hit for the cycle, and rob an opponent of a homer in center-field: flanked by Eddie Rosario and German youngster Max Kepler this could be one of the best young outfields in the game.
Kansas City Royals: The remaining three teams in the Central are in rebuilding mode, but manager Ned Yost might be able to get the best out of prospects like Jorge Soler and starter Nate Karns to keep them ahead of the other two.
Chicago White Sox: Young pitchers are the key: Carlos Rondon, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Carson Fullmer: if three of them can come through the Cubs could surprise. Avisail Garcia had a breakthrough year in the outfield, and at age 27, could become a star, and young infielder Yoan Moncada could follow.
Detroit Tigers: New manager Ron Gardenhire joins another team deep into rebuilding, with veterans Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez the old stars on the downhill. Michael Fullmer needs to step up as a pitching ace, while third baseman Jeimer Candelario looked like a star when he came up in the second half of the season.
West Division Team-by-Team Guide
Houston Astros (Division Champs): The defending World Series champs won 101 games last year and should come close to that again. Second baseman Jose Altuve is an MVP candidate and with shortstop Carlos Correa give the Astros a solid center. Justin Verlander came over from the Tigers to star in the playoffs, and they added Joe Smith to try and lessen the load on their bullpen.
Los Angeles Angels: Mike Trout is the best player in baseball but the big news in Anaheim was the addition of Japanese star Shohei Ohtani who both pitched and hit for Hokkaido. His adjustment might be slow, if spring was any indication, but he is a rare talent. Adding infielders Zack Cozart and Ian Kinsler should help, but the question is how much gas Albert Pujols has left in his tank.
Oakland Athletics: The A's have finished fifth in this division the last three seasons as everyone's caught up with Moneyball, but there's some reason for optimism, especially if the two Matts (Chapman and Olson) can come through at the corners (first and third), and Boog Powell (no relation to the Sixties version of Boog Powell) can in the outfield. And if young starters like Paul Blackburn or Dan Mengden come through the A's could surprise.
Texas Rangers: Very similar to Seattle, Texas has a decent batting order; their four infielders totalled 107 home runs, but big questions remain on the mound, where Cole Hamels is the ace but a mass of injured arms sit behind him.
Seattle Mariners: Seattle hasn't made the postseason since 2001, the longest run in MLB, and despite a solid hitting lineup, their pitching might not be up to getting them there this season. James Paxton may become the ace, as injuries have reduced 'King' Felix Hernandez's effectiveness. They need 3b Kyle Seager to rebound from what was for him an off season.
National League Preview
East Division Team-by-Team Guide
Washington Nationals (Division Champs): Dusty Baker got fired after the Nats flopped in the playoffs; Dave Martinez is the new boss. Superstar Bryce Harper is in his contract year and they get Adam Eaton back from injury, but they need Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy and Trea Turner to repeat big seasons. The rotation is the best this side of LA, with Max Scherzer, who won his third Cy Young award, Steven Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark. Last summer they added three pitchers to construct a strong bullpen: if the Nats don't win it this year, they may never win it at all.
Philadelphia Phillies: They won only 66 games last year, and they need a lot to go right for them, especially in terms of pitching health, but the Phillies have put together a good young nucleus to which they added Carlos Santana, which moves Rhys Hopkins from first to the outfield. Aaron Nola looks like a rotation anchor; the key is whether he gets help.
New York Mets: If they Mets could keep all their starters healthy they'd be contenders; Jacob DeGrom is the only starter who gives them innings, though Noah Syndergaard is a Cy Young candidate when he's 100%. There are always questions about Matt Harvey, Steven Matz and Zach Wheeler. Their best hitter is Yoenis Cespedes, and he missed half of last season with dodgy hamstrings.
Atlanta Braves: Freddie Freeman may be baseball's most under-appreciated star, labouring as he does with young players who never seem to deliver. It's the same story this season, but if perennial prospects like Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies can come through, the Braves could challenge for third.
Miami Marlins: Derek Jeter's job appears to be to cut the Marlins payroll to the bone and help the Yankees get better, not necessarily in that order. Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich may have been the NL's best outfield, now all are gone. The suspicion is that any veteran, like Martin Prado or Starlin Castro, who plays well for the Marlins will also be dealt at the trade deadline this summer.
Central Division Team-by-Team Guide
Chicago Cubs (Division Champs): It's hard to argue against the Cubs, who have quality starters, including slow-toss genius Kyle Hendricks, a deep bullpen led by Brandon Morrow (signed from the Dodgers), and a loaded lineup led by MVP candidate Kris Bryant and patient power hitter Anthony Rizzo. 2016's post-season hero Kyle Schwarber is back healthy and in shape, which could make the Cubbies even stronger.
St. Louis Cardinals: The Cards are consistent contenders, but have missed the post-season two years in a row. They could wild card in this season, though the Central will be a dogfight behind the Cubs. Power-hitting shortstop Paul DeJong will make a difference if he continues last year's form, and the addition of Ozuna from the Marlins will help. The rotation is their strength, led by Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha.
Milwaukee Brewers: The Brewers made the steal of the 2017 when they got Travis Shaw from the Red Sox, this year they grabbed Yelich from the Marlins to strengthen their lineup. I might have picked them higher but starter Jimmy Nelson will miss the first half of the season afer shoulder surgery. Watch lefty reliever Josh Hader, who might emerge as a closer soon.
Cincinnati Reds: The Reds have been rebuilding forever, but this could be the year they start to move. They have a lot of promising talent and Joey Votto, another of the under-appreciated hitting talents in MLB. Eugenio Suarez and Scotter Gennett had breakthrough years in the infield, but their young outfielders need to learn how to get on base. Luis Castillo could be the star of the rotation, and Rafael Iglesias is an exciting closer.
Pittsburgh Pirates: In January Pittsburgh traded their best player, Andrew McCutcheon, and their best pitcher, Gerrit Coles, in the space of four days. Among the players they got back, Colin Moran should start at third, and Joe Musgrave could join the rotation. Moran and Josh Bell leave them strong at the corners, but they'll need new arms Kyle Crick and Michael Feliz to help a busy bullpen.
West Division Team-by-Team Guide
Los Angeles Dodgers (Division Champs): Once again the Dodgers dominated in the season and deflated in the playoffs. They have stars like pitcher Clayton Kershaw and 3b Justin Turner, as well as the last two rookies of the year in shortstop Corey Seager and 1b Cody Bellinger. Kenley Jansen is a quality closer, the bullpen is deep, and the rotation, with Rich Hill and Alex Wodd in the 2-3 slots, goes five deep.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Zach Grienke and Robbie Ray head a picthing staff that looks like Dodgers-lite, while Paul Goldschmidt is maybe the most consistently great hitter among a fine bunch of hitting first baseman. With Jake Lamb at third, they have the corners covered, but the loss of JD Martinez means someone has to step up and provide outfield power.
Colorado Rockies: The Rockies won 87 games last year, and have a legit MVP candidate in Nolan Arenado, and a stats machine in Charlie Blackmon. The lineup is good defensively, which they have to be in the giant spaces of thin-air Coors Field, but injuries meant they used five rookie pitchers last season: if three injured starters, led by Jon Gray, return to form they could be tough. They key might be new closer Wade Davis, ex of the Royals and Cubs, where he blew only one save last year.
San Francisco Giants: The Giants looked hungry to make a move in the West, trading for McCutcheon and Evan Longoria in the offseason, but a recent broken finger suffered by ace pitcher Madison Bumgarner (he's out until mid-season at least) might put a damper on their plans, especially as they play the Dodgers ten times in the their first 28 games. Buster Posey remains one of the game's best players, at catcher and first base.
San Diego Padres: The Padres spent big to sign Eric Hosmer from the Royals and got Chase Headley back from the Yankees to fill their corner positions. Will Myers moves back to the outfield, but the rest of the lineup is full of question marks. They need a lot of young arms to come through on the mound, and that ought to hold them back sufficiently.