The 2019 MLB regular season is technically underway with the Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics playing two games in Japan this week. But that was basically a tease — now we have to wait just under a week for more games that count and the pomp and circumstance that comes with Opening Day.
Game 1 of 162 is always memorable for a number of reasons. Whether a team is projected to be a playoff contender or not, anything can happen and everyone has a clean slate. Baseball fans are already using their Betfred sign up offers to wager on their favorite teams. While we wait for the rest of baseball to close the book on spring training, there are always projections to help pass the time.
The below table shows each team’s playoff odds from best to worst heading into 2019, per FanGraphs (as of March 21st).
Obviously, the first thing that jumps out here is how top-heavy the American League looks, boasting the majority of the Best Baseball Players in the league for a second straight year. After watching the Yankees, Red Sox, and Astros all finish with 100-plus wins in 2018, they’re projected to be pretty good again this year (as are the Indians).
However, there are eight other MLB teams that enter the 2019 season with intriguing odds when it comes to punching a ticket to play some October baseball. Let’s take a look.
Chicago Cubs (63.9%)
There’s a wide range of opinions when it comes to the Cubs. FanGraphs, as we can see, is projecting them to come out on top in what will likely be a very deep and tough NL Central. That’s the exact opposite of what Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections see right now. These models have them coming in dead last, which is somewhat surprising given the makeup of their roster.
Kris Bryant is going to be a crucial factor in how the offense performs. Chicago’s team wRC+ of 100 ranked 12th in baseball last season, but the bats disappeared following the All-Star Break — their 89 team wRC+ in the second half ranked 24th. A healthy Bryant is necessary after budgetary restrictions seemingly prevented Theo Epstein and company from making a big splash (i.e. going after Bryce Harper).
Having a healthy and productive Yu Darvish, along with a full year of an effective Cole Hamels (like he was after arriving in Chicago last summer), would also be a big boost to the pitching staff.
Either way, it’s interesting to see how much things can change in a year. The Cubs’ roster has mostly remained the same, but the moves made by other teams within their division has made the road to October harder. For comparison’s sake, their current playoff odds vary quite a bit to what they were at this time last year, which was 95.6%.
Milwaukee Brewers (27.4%)
You didn’t think we could talk about the Cubs and not the Brewers, right? Their projections are also miles different when comparing what we see at FanGraphs and at Baseball Prospectus.
The defending NL Central champs are third in the pecking order heading into 2019, according to FanGraphs, looking up at both the Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals. Despite making a major upgrade at catcher by signing Yasmani Grandal, they have just a 14.0% chance of winning back-to-back division titles. Meanwhile, PECOTA has them pegged for a second straight title and postseason appearance.
Milwaukee’s offense and bullpen should be very good, but it’s clear that the biggest potential weakness could be in the rotation. These low playoff odds shouldn’t be surprising, especially after seeing that FanGraphs is projecting a huge drop in starting-rotation production. The Brewers were connected to names like Corey Kluber and Sonny Gray in the trade market this past winter, but ultimately didn’t pull any triggers.
Of course, this sounds familiar because it was the exact same concern for the club heading into last year, yet they ended up doing just fine. An X-factor this season is Jimmy Nelson. Having him healthy and productive after missing all of 2018 would be a boon for Milwaukee. He won’t be ready for Opening Day, but at least appears to be on track for a return later in April.
If you want a positive out of this low projection, you can look to last year’s around this time. Manager Craig Counsell’s club was given just a 16.5% chance of reaching the playoffs, and they eventually came within one win of reaching the World Series.
(Most of) The NL East
The National League East may not be viewed as the toughest division in baseball, but this race is looking like it’ll be a heavyweight bout. At the time of this writing, they’re the only division with four teams having at least a 30.0% chance of reaching October, with three of those clubs getting up over 40.0%. Here’s a quick rundown again:
- Washington Nationals: 78.8%
- Philadelphia Phillies: 48.4%
- New York Mets: 40.3%
- Atlanta Braves: 38.8%
That’s pretty crazy, especially when you see the other end of the spectrum, as the Miami Marlins are given a big fat 0.0% chance of making the playoffs. The above odds jump off the page, but the 2018 version of this divisional race is proof that they should be taken with a grain of salt.
At this point last year, the Nats (89.2%) and Mets (44.0%) appeared to be poised to battle it out at the top of the NL East. It actually ended up being a fight between the Phillies (8.1%) and Braves (3.7%) before Philly faded into Fortnite oblivion in the second half.
As we talked about last week, though, these four clubs each made significant moves over the offseason, and the sheer number of them would make a playoff-caliber starting lineup on its own. This race should be hella fun to watch unfold.
Minnesota Twins (35.5%)
On the flip side, the American League Central is the weakest division in baseball. The Cleveland Indians are runaway favorites to take home their fourth consecutive division title, with the Twins coming in a distant second.
Even more distant, though, is the rest of the division. The Chicago White Sox are hoping to take a step forward, but even a 20-game improvement would only get them to barely above .500. And then there are the Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers, each of whom are toward the beginning of a rebuild.
None of those three teams has higher than a 1.1% chance of reaching October.
Cleveland is viewed as the big favorite because of its incredible pitching staff, and most notably, the starting rotation. Plus, they get to play Kansas City, Detroit, and Chicago more than virtually every other club. Everything needs to go right for this club to dominate as expected, though.
There are major questions in the outfield, which currently consists of Tyler Naquin, Jake Bauers, and Leonys Martin, according to Roster Resource. This shortage of proven talent led them to sign Carlos Gonzalez to a minor-league deal a few days ago. He’s been worth 1.6 total fWAR since the start of 2017 (268 games played).
The Twins are interesting because they made a number of intriguing short-term acquisitions that could seriously raise the club’s performance floor. Those acquisitions include C.J. Cron, Jonathan Schoop, Nelson Cruz, and Marwin Gonzalez. If Byron Buxton can keep his hot-hitting going when games start to count (.438/.472/.906 line in 32 at-bats), they could certainly hang around in the division.
While it appears that at least one of the AL wild-card spots will come from the AL East, Minnesota has a 24.7% chance of grabbing the second spot.
Colorado Rockies (16.0%)
The Rockies have reached the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time in club history. But thanks to a very competitive National League, the odds of them reaching October for a third straight season isn’t looking great. FanGraphs and PECOTA agree on Colorado’s standing in the NL West, but in different ways.
FanGraphs is projecting the Los Angeles Dodgers as the only team within the division to even be over .500, while PECOTA is projecting three winning teams. Each scenario has the Rockies as the second-place team, so that’s something.
The delineation between all these teams is rather clear. The San Francisco Giants aren’t going to make much meaningful noise, and while the San Diego Padres grabbed headlines by signing Manny Machado, they’re still a ways away from legitimately contending. The Arizona Diamondbacks will try to remain competitive, but trading Paul Goldschmidt is clearly a sign of at least retooling for the future.
By the process of elimination, Colorado is the best competition Los Angeles will face.
Kyle Freeland, German Marquez, and Jon Gray will look to keep their rotation as one of the 10 best in baseball, while the bullpen will hopefully bounce back. The big question mark is Colorado’s offense. Adding Daniel Murphy to Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story helps, but their 87 team wRC+ was among the worst in baseball last year, and it’s been a problem for a while now.
If the Rockies want to give the Dodgers a tough fight or give themselves a shot at yet another wild-card berth, the bats need to wake up. They have found recent success despite their offense, though — Colorado had an 18.1% chance of making the playoffs at this time last year, and they found a way to make it happen.