Times writer Eduardo A. Encina breaks down the 2019 baseball season:
1. Red Sox: Defending champs deserve the top perch. If their rotation remains stout and they figure out the closer role, they’ll be just as strong.
2. Yankees: They’ve closed the gap between themselves and Boston. Not only do they slug, but this is the deepest Yankees team in years, and bullpen will shorten games.
3. Astros: It’s easy to forget a club won 103 games last year. Their rotation has lost some luster, but they’re still one of baseball’s most exciting and complete teams.
4. Dodgers: Back-to-back World Series runners-up still are NL’s most talented team. They’ve lost some pieces, but get shortstop Corey Seager back. Other contenders have narrowed the gap.
5. Phillies: They’re better with Bryce Harper, but it’s the defensive upgrades they’ve made that will get more out of a young talented pitching staff.
6. Cardinals: An already-strong lineup received a huge upgrade with the addition of Paul Goldschmidt, a enough of a boost to make them legit NL title contenders.
7. Rays: We’ve learned not to doubt them. Reigning Cy Young winner, great roster flexibility, this group showed is can win, but the big question: Can the opener continue to work?
8. Brewers: They led the NL in wins last season anchored by Christian Yelich’s MVP season. Adding catcher Yasmani Grandal boosts what already is one of the game’s best defenses.
9. Indians: Their starting pitching will always keep competitive, but the Indians didn’t do too much other than trading for Jake Bauers and welcoming back 32-year-old Carlos Santana.
10. Cubs: Another team with a shrinking window that didn’t do much to improve in the offseason. Could Joe Maddon’s future be at stake if the Cubs don’t go deep into the playoffs?
11. Braves: This team is young and exciting, and with a year of experience under its belt, they’ll be even better prepared for the regular-season grind.
12. Nationals: No longer the unquestioned top dogs in the NL East, they will hold their own with a rotation lead by Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin.
13. Twins: They made some nice under-the-radar signings — Nelson Cruz, Jonathan Schoop and Marwin Gonzalez — but can former-centerfielder-now-manager Rocco Baldelli get the most out of Byron Buxton?
14. Athletics: Did you know the A’s 31.1 offensive WAR was second-best in baseball? Didn’t think so. Matt Chapman and Matt Olson would be huge stars in a bigger market.
15. Rockies: As a team, the Rox hit .287 at home and just .225 on the road. We know about the Coors Field effect, but that’s the kind of split that should put a travel secretary on the hot seat
16. Angels: It’s just two more seasons until Mike Trout reaches free agency. Eight years in Anaheim, one playoff appearance. Something feels wrong about that.
17. Mets: They addressed up their biggest weakness — the bullpen — by trading for all-star closer Edwin Diaz. There are some things to be excited about here.
18. Reds: They were one of the most active teams this offseason, and they’re much better than last season. But will it matter in their division?
19. Padres: Give them credit for landing a big fish like Manny Machado. The farm system is stacked with position player talent, but name one of their starting pitchers. I’ll wait.
20. Pirates: The rest of the NL Central improved while the Pirates stayed pretty much the same, which spells a last-place division finish.
21: Diamondbacks: The snakes lost too much in the offseason — Goldschmidt, A.J. Pollock and Corbin — to remain competitive in the NL West.
22. Giants: One of baseball’s best atmospheres will house one of the game’s least exciting products. Their offense was statistically the worst in baseball, and that’s with Buster Posey.
23. Mariners: Seattle spent the offseason trading major league pieces to rebuild a farm system that ranked last in the majors this time last year.
24. Blue Jays: Toronto’s playing for the future. Few players from the playoff teams remain — Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez and Kevin Pillar — and they might be gone before the end of the year.
25. Royals: They are trying to get back focusing on speed and defense like those World Series teams of a few years back. They’re still a few years away from seeing fruition.
26. White Sox: They were “in” on everyone in the offseason, but came away with nothing but a couple of Machado’s best friends. The future is bright but still a few years away.
27. Rangers: Texas’ starters ERA of 5.37 ranked 29th out of 30 major league clubs. This is the last season for Globe Life Park, so the Rangers have that going for them.
28. Tigers: Can Miguel Cabrera bounce back from injury-plagued 2018? Better question: Will Tigers be competitive again by the final year of his contract (2023)?
29. Marlins: Consummate winner Derek Jeter said this month fans don’t care who wins games when they come to the ballpark. Good to know, because Miami fans won’t have many wins to see.
30. Orioles: They’ve torn it down in Baltimore and building a competitive team could take time because the Orioles long ignored using comprehensive data and scouting Latin America. It was only a matter of time before that caught up with them in the AL East.
Teams most likely to surprise
It’s easy to forget they were a playoff team two years ago. They will have an improved offense with Nelson Cruz in the middle of the order. If their young pitching can progress and they get contributions from back-of-the-rotation arms like Michael Pineda and Martin Perez, they could make some noise in the AL Central.
Some may think that Cincinnati misplayed its hand by making moves in an ultra-competitive NL Central, but we know how up for grabs this division can be on a year-to-year basis. If Yusiel Puig adjusts to his new surroundings, Matt Kemp continues to chug along to complement Joey Votto, they may be playing meaningful baseball deep into the summer.
Team most likely to disappoint
The foundation of that World Series team of a couple years ago was a stellar bullpen that shortened games in the postseason and took greatest advantages of its rotation strength. Now, that Cleveland bullpen isn’t as tough to maneuver through beyond closer Brad Hand.
Because they always do. But also because the NL East might be the game’s most competitive division. Their lineup isn’t as intimidating without Bryce Harper, and if their starting rotation doesn’t meet expectations or gets hurt, they could be looking at a fourth-place finish.
New faces in new places
Players not named Harper or Machado who you should expect to have a big impact in their new homes.
Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Cardinals: This writer’s pick for NL MVP, he put up huge numbers in Arizona. Now give him Marcell Ozuna, an MVP candidate in his own right, to protect him and Goldy could be the acquisition of the offseason.
Josh Donaldson, 3B, Braves: Before last year’s battle with injuries, he posted a .946 OPS over the previous three years. If he’s healthy, he’s the kind of bat that can give the Braves some much-needed run production.
J.T. Realmuto, C, Phillies: He was the best catcher in the game statistically, owning a 4.8 WAR while throwing out 38 percent of potential basestealers. The Phillies gave up a lot to get him and he’s slated for free agency after 2020.
Daniel Murphy, 1B, Rockies: He sputtered last year in part due to a knee injury, but when healthy, he’s a hitting machine, averaging 40 doubles from 2012 to ‘17. A move to hitter-friendly Coors Field can only help.
Adam Ottavino, RP, Yankees: The Yankees bullpen offers so many different late-inning looks, and when you add in Ottavino’s nasty slider, and the fact that he had a 36.3 percent strikeout rate and .154 opponents batting average and the rest of the AL East is in trouble.
Numbers don’t lie
Some statistical takeaways from 2018 to consider when looking ahead to 2019:
Mets right-hander Jacob deGrom’s 8.8 WAR last season was the highest for a pitcher since Randy Johnson held a 9.6 WAR in 2004.
Athletics third baseman Matt Chapman last season had 29 defensive runs saved last season, the third most by any third baseman this decade.
Texas’ Joey Gallo’s career strikeout rate of 38 percent is the highest of any position player dating back to 1919.
The Rays’ Joey Wendle was the only rookie last season to record an OPS of .789 while also posting at least five defensive runs saved.
The Yankees’ 267 homers last season were the most by any team in major league history, bettering the 1996 Mariners (264), but the Yankees’ team batting average (.249) was 31 points lower than that Seattle team (.280).
Five rookies to watch
All of them might not be on Opening Day rosters, but when they receive the call, you better pay attention.
Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., 3B, Blue Jays: Toronto likely had the game’s top prospect ticketed for the minors to ensure an extra year of team control, but a spring training oblique strain gives the Jays even more reason to proceed with care. He’s dominated every minor league level.
Fernando Tatis, Jr. SS, Padres: He missed a big chunk of last year due to injury and has yet to play above the Double-A level, but he’s been raking in spring training. The Padres will only be able to hold Tatis back for so long.
Victor Robles, OF, Nationals: With Bryce Harper gone, a starting outfield spot opens for the talented 22-year-old. He’s played in 34 big league games over the past two seasons, and this spring he showed he’s ready to assume a regular role.
Eloy Jimenez, OF, White Sox: The anchor of the White Sox’s youth movement, he hit .337 last season at Double-A and Triple-A. He struggled in spring training, but expect him to be in the big leagues by the all-star break.
Nick Senzel, IF/OF, Reds: His speed has allowed him to make a quick transition to center field after playing third and second in the minors. Position flexibility only adds to the attraction. He owns a .904 minor league OPS.
Five players with Tampa Bay ties to follow
The region’s rich baseball history has a new batch of up-and-comers.
Peter Alonso, 1B, Mets: The Plant High and UF product has slugged his way onto the Mets’ Opening Day roster and might have earned the starting first base job. He hit 39 homers last season and has shown the power translates.
Tommy Eveld, RHP, Marlins: The Jesuit High and USF product owned a 1.07 ERA at the high-A and Double-A levels. He could be just a few months from a big-league opportunity if he continues to grow.
Oscar Mercado, OF, Indians: Former Cardinals first-rounder out of Gaither High has found second life with Cleveland, where an impressive spring and an organizational lack of outfield depth could propel him to the big leagues.
Richie Martin, SS, Orioles: Former Bloomingdale High and UF standout has had a great spring for the rebuilding birds, and his Rule 5 status means he’ll learn on the fly on the major league roster.
Kyle Tucker, OF, Astros: Houston’s top prospect — a Plant High grad — struggled in his introduction to the majors and will open the season in the minors, but .849 career OPS in minors doesn’t lie.
Top five stadium giveaways
SGA’s from around the league, here are five that stood out:
Yadier Molina/Roberto Clemente bobblehead (Cardinals vs. Pirates, May 10): Features two of the best players from Puerto Rico, Molina was last year’s winner of the Clemente award. Molina played a huge role in the relief efforts for Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria.
Seattle Pilots cap (Mariners vs. Orioles, June 22): The Mariners always do a good job with their Turn Back the Clock nights, and this time they will honor the short-lived Pilots, Seattle’s first major league team, which lasted just one season in 1969. The cap is memorable.
Bruce Lee tribute day (Padres vs. Braves, July 14): The Padres have held an annual martial arts day for over a decade and this year’s theme night includes a giveaway Bruce Lee shirt with a silhouette of Bruce Lee flying through the air.
Nolan Ryan Astros rainbow shoulder replica jersey (Astros vs. Mariners, Aug. 2): Retro is cool, and what’s more 80’s retro than the jersey baseball’s all-time strikeout king wore while throwing heat in the Astrodome?
Detroit Stars replica jersey (Tigers vs. Royals, Aug. 10): Recognizes the 100th anniversary of the creation of the team that was a charter member of the Negro National League and included Hall of Famers Turkey Stearnes and Andy Cooper.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at [email protected] Follow @EddieintheYard