Imagining a perfect season for each team in the tank-free National League West

If, as Scott Boras suggested earlier this winter, baseball has indeed been corrupted by tanking, a practice he decried as “a non-competitive cancer,” then the National League West is … wait, what cures cancer?

In truth, it’s up for debate whether this glut of brazenly bad teams is actually a new phenomenon, or even all that harmful to the game, but what is clear is the five teams in the NL West – three of whom made the postseason in 2017 – did nothing to help this supposed cancer metastasize.

The Los Angeles Dodgers are going for it. Obviously. So, too, are the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies, who squared off in last year’s NL wild-card game. As for the San Francisco Giants, who finished with the worst record in the majors in 2017, they were undeterred by that disaster, bringing in a couple past-prime superstars this offseason to ensure last year was an anomaly. Even the San Diego Padres, the division’s longtime whipping boys, aren’t punting anymore, having inked Eric Hosmer to an eight-year deal in February to start wrapping up their most recent rebuilding effort.

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You still have to squint pretty hard, of course, to see the Padres making the playoffs, and it’s not like Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria have cured all that ailed the Giants last summer. But in a climate now arguably too hospitable to those teams demonstrably disinclined to put a winner on the field, it’s refreshing to see a division sans any tank jobs. That isn’t to say all five teams will be good, because they won’t, but at least none of them are actively trying to be as un-good as possible. Find another division with five clubs that fit that description.

With their eyes on the prize, then, let’s take a look at what needs to happen for each NL West team to realize its perfect season, whatever that may be, starting with the reigning division champs (2018 projections and playoff odds courtesy of FanGraphs):

Los Angeles Dodgers

2017 RECORD PROJECTED 2018 RECORD PLAYOFF ODDS (%)
104-58 93-69 93.5%

 

A perfect 2018 season ends with … a World Series championship

For the Dodgers, divisional champs in each of the last five seasons and all but assured to repeat again this year, the 2017 campaign was perfect, really, until Game 7 of the World Series. They had, over the preceding months, authored their finest regular season since emigrating from Brooklyn, then bullied their way to the World Series, losing just one game through the first two rounds of the playoff. And yet they fell short of the Hollywood ending. They failed, Clayton Kershaw said, shouldering much of the blame himself. In truth, though, had Yu Darvish done a better job hiding the ball in Game 7, or had George Springer woken up with a sore back that morning, the Dodgers’ season would’ve ended with exaltation rather than heartbreak.

Having brought back almost every essential member of last year’s club, in order to realize their perfect season in 2018 by getting that World Series title and exorcising three decades worth of demons, the Dodgers don’t need to do anything different – just win the damn thing. And there’s a good chance that’ll happen if Cody Bellinger and Chris Taylor even approximate last year’s huge numbers; if Alex Wood sustains the gains he made in 2017, when he was an All-Star for the first time; if Justin Turner returns to form once his fractured wrist has healed; and if Kershaw, the best pitcher of his generation, finally starts to act like himself in the postseason.

Arizona Diamondbacks

2017 RECORD PROJECTED 2018 RECORD PLAYOFF ODDS (%)
93-69 81-81 25.6%

 

A perfect 2018 season ends with … a division title

The Dodgers’ cushion atop the NL West seems insurmountable, but it’s salient to remember the Diamondbacks were a punchline this time last year following a 69-93 finish in 2016, a catastrophe of a season that effectively ended Dave Stewart’s career as an executive. Then, as we all know, they ended up silencing the haters, riding their exemplary rotation – comprised of Zack Greinke, Robbie Ray, Zack Godley, Patrick Corbin, and Taijuan Walker – to a 93-win season in which they actually underperformed against their expected record (per the Pythag theorem, a run differential-based record estimator, the Diamondbacks should’ve finished 96-66). Though they’re projected to take a step backward in 2018, the Diamondbacks will field that exact same rotation this season, meaning they’re probably going to be an elite run-prevention club again. There’s even room for improvement, too, seeing as they gave 17 starts last year to a cadre of scrubs who combined for a 5.67 ERA.

Again, dethroning the Dodgers won’t be easy, but considering how talented their staff is, the Diamondbacks will have a shot at their first NL West title since 2011 if A.J. Pollock, who struggled last year after missing almost all of 2016, resembles his former self (from 2014-15, he hit .311/.363/.498 with 9.8 WAR in 232 games, averaging 14 homers, 29 doubles, and 26 steals per season); if Jake Lamb, who owns a .843 OPS over the last two seasons, improves his ghastly .566 career OPS against left-handers; if Ketel Marte, who landed a five-year extension Monday, realizes the potential the club obviously sees in him; and if Jarrod Dyson can ably fill the outfield void created by the departure of J.D. Martinez.

Colorado Rockies

2017 RECORD PROJECTED 2018 RECORD PLAYOFF ODDS (%)
87-75 80-82 18.1%

 

A perfect 2018 season ends with … a division title

Much like the Diamondbacks, the Rockies snapped their playoff drought in 2018 on the strength of their pitching staff, which finished eighth in the majors (fourth in the NL) in WAR and seventh in park-adjusted ERA. Also like the Diamondbacks, the Rockies face the unenviable reality of having to compete with the Dodgers, and so spent considerably this winter to improve that already impressive staff, inking Wade Davis and Bryan Shaw while also re-signing Jake McGee for a combined $106 million to ensure run prevention, a notoriously difficult task in Colorado, doesn’t become problematic once more in 2018.

However, for the Rockies, who added only Chris Iannetta to a lineup that finished fourth-last in the majors in wRC+ (87) last year, a division title will only be possible if Charlie Blackmon and Nolan Arenado, worth 12.1 WAR between them in 2017, continue to produce at close to MVP levels; if DJ LeMahieu, the NL batting champ two years ago, rectifies whatever caused him to produce below-league-average numbers in 2017; if Trevor Story, who lost almost 80 points of isolated power last season, reproduces the figures from his sensational 2016 rookie campaign; and if David Dahl and Ramiel Tapia deliver when the Rockies’ incumbent corner outfielders – Carlos Gonzalez and Gerardo Parra – ultimately disappoint.

San Francisco Giants

2017 RECORD PROJECTED 2018 RECORD PLAYOFF ODDS (%)
64-98 81-81 24.9%

 

A perfect 2018 season ends with … a wild-card berth

A week ago, it was difficult to envision the revamped Giants competing for the division. Now, with Madison Bumgarner possibly sidelined until June with a broken hand and Jeff Samardzija set to miss the first three-to-four weeks of the season with a strained pectoral muscle, it’s impossible.

That said, even with their rotation in disrepair and a bevy of good-but-not-great teams poised to compete for an NL wild-card spot, the Giants – who added big-name talent this winter to a team whose 2017 record belies the strength of its core players – can force their way into that one-game playoff if Longoria proves his sub-par 2017 (98 wRC+; 2.5 WAR) was merely a blip, and McCutchen, who managed 3.7 WAR last year following a disastrous 2016 campaign, more closely imitates his younger self in his final season before free agency; if Brandon Belt, plagued by concussion problems in 2017, logs a full season; if Mark Melancon, who flopped in his first year with San Francisco, vindicates the club’s decision to give him a four-year, $62-million deal last winter; if Hunter Pence dispels the increasingly popular notion that he can’t play at a high level for a full season anymore; and if their interim starters, tasked with keeping Bumgarner and Samardzija’s rotation spots warm, don’t completely suck.

San Diego Padres

2017 RECORD PROJECTED 2018 RECORD PLAYOFF ODDS (%)
71-91 73-89 2.7%

 

A perfect 2018 season ends with … a wild-card berth

When you get down to do it, the real impetus for the second wild-card is the suspension of disbelief – more easily monetized, after all, than the death of hope and faith – and no team better exemplifies this reality than the refurbished Padres, whose competitive window isn’t really open yet but has just enough room for a breeze of hope to whisper through. With Fernando Tatis Jr., MacKenzie Gore, Cal Quantrill, and Luis Urias still toiling away in the minors, most of the centerpieces of their rebuild have yet to ripen, all due respect to Manuel Margot and Carlos Asuaje. But the Padres’ decision to commit $144 million to Hosmer – who will be their second-oldest everyday position player this year – suggests they don’t think they’re that far off.

And while nobody in their right mind expects them to make the playoffs, suspend your disbelief and consider the possibility it could happen if Hosmer, as volatile as they come, manages a second excellent season in a row – he hit .318 with a 135 wRC+ and 4.1 WAR in 2017 – for the first time in his career; if Wil Myers, heading into the second season of an $83-million extension, finds the value he lost last year both at the plate and in the field; if Austin Hedges, owning a career .596 OPS, dispels his deserved reputation as a catch-and-throw guy; if Margot, who managed 1.9 WAR as a rookie in 2017, takes another significant step forward; if Chase Headley, who turns 34 in May, rediscovers the stroke that made him an All-Star and MVP candidate during his previous stint in San Diego; and if their entire rotation, now down Dinelson Lamet for at least the first month of the season, dramatically exceeds expectations.

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5 new faces key to the National League Central race

Yu Darvish, SP, Chicago Cubs

Cubs’ projected record (FanGraphs): 93-69
Cubs’ projected record (PECOTA): 91-71
Darvish’s projected 2018 WAR (Steamer): 3.9

Unwilling to cede their position as the unequivocal favorite in the NL Central, the Cubs replaced Jake Arrieta this offseason with a younger, bat-missing-er stud in Darvish, giving the four-time All-Star $126 million to prevent their potential dynasty from derailing. Now, barring injury, the Cubs are poised to be an elite run-prevention team again in 2018 following a perfectly-fine-but-not-quite-spectacular performance from their rotation a year ago. Seeing as they’re also going to score a lot of runs in 2018it’s fair to presume that the Cubs will win a lot of games this season. Like, a lot. Darvish wasn’t quite as dominant last year in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery (and, for the record, his World Series struggles have been way overblown), but the 31-year-old is still a top-end starter, having finished 18th in the majors in WAR (3.5) in 2017 despite allowing more hard contact with a drop-off in strikeout rate, too. His velocity didn’t degrade at all from 2016, either – over 17 starts, Darvish managed a 3.09 FIP – and his bloated homer-to-fly-ball rate suggests there’s room for positive regression. Ultimately, though, even if Darvish’s 2017 numbers (3.86 ERA; 3.83 FIP) are indicative of a new performance baseline, the Cubs are going to be fine. Better, even.

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Christian Yelich, OF, Milwaukee Brewers

Brewers’ projected record (FanGraphs): 78-84
Brewers’ projected record (PECOTA): 84-78
Yelich’s projected 2018 WAR (Steamer): 3.9

Following an unexpectedly competitive 2017 season, the Brewers – who finished one game back of the second wild-card spot – took major steps this winter to expedite their rebuild, none more significant than the January trade in which they sent top prospect Lewis Brinson, an ostensible centerpiece of their future, to Miami for Yelich. They’re still not quite good enough to challenge the Cubs for the division title, but it’s clear that the future is now (or at least rapidly approaching) for the Brewers given that they’re expending prospect capital to improve their 25-man roster and signing free agents on the wrong side of 30 (more on that later). As such, expect the Brewers to be in the thick of the wild-card race again in 2018, as Yelich – who boasts a career 120 OPS+ – should help offset regression from the likes of Eric Thames, Travis Shaw, and Domingo Santana, keeping Milwaukee firmly in maybe-good-but-definitely-not-great territory. Yelich, after all, has quietly been one of the game’s most valuable players over the past few seasons, accruing 15.9 WAR since 2014 while slashing .290/.368/.436 with an average of 14 homers, 34 doubles, and 16 stolen bases per season.

Marcell Ozuna, OF, St. Louis Cardinals

Cardinals’ projected record (FanGraphs): 86-76
Cardinals’ projected record (PECOTA): 85-77
Ozuna’s projected 2018 WAR (Steamer): 3.8

One of the first teams to take advantage of the Marlins’ dismantling, the Cardinals – undeterred by their surplus of outfielders – shipped a pair of middling prospects and two more non-prospects to Miami in December for Ozuna, a power-hitting left fielder who likely improves their roster more than any free-agent position player could have. Though the 27-year-old may not be able to replicate his numbers from last year, when he set career highs in WAR (4.8), OPS (.924), home runs (37), and defensive runs saved (10), Ozuna still raises the floor significantly. He’s been worth at last 2.5 WAR in three of the last four seasons, and his arrival in St. Louis had ancillary benefits, too; Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk were rendered superfluous, and enabled the Cardinals to trade both outfielders for help on the farm and in the bullpen. Frankly, the Cardinals should’veearned a wild-card berth last year – at 83-79, they finished four wins shy of their expected (Pythag) record – and they didn’t lose any key contributors this winter, so even if the upgrade that Ozuna offers is marginal, they’re still going to be competitive. If he does continue to perform at his 2017 level, though, it’s conceivable that they’re fighting for the division come September.

Lorenzo Cain, OF, Milwaukee Brewers

Brewers’ projected record (FanGraphs): 78-84
Brewers’ projected record (PECOTA): 84-78
Cain’s projected 2018 WAR (Steamer): 2.8

Mere moments after landing Yelich back in January, their increasing glut of everyday outfielders notwithstanding, the Brewers finalized a deal to reunite with Cain, handing their former 17th-round pick the biggest free-agent contract in franchise history (5 years, $80 million). Unlike the Yelich trade, however, which has both immediate and long-term value, the Cain deal is – despite its term – a short-term move, a surprisingly aggressive salvo that reinforces the Brewers’ plan to compete in 2018. Cain, after all, turns 32 a couple weeks after Opening Day, and diminishing returns should be expected within the next few seasons given his speed-centric profile. For now, at least, the Brewers have a bona fide stud in center field – a major upgrade over Keon Broxton – as Cain has been the fifth-most valuable outfielder in the majors since his breakout 2014 campaign, combining elite defense and baserunning with an above-average bat. As evidenced by the projections above, the Brewers’ 2018 campaign has a fairly wide range of outcomes, but with Cain holding it down in center, Milwaukee’s less-established players don’t necessarily have to realize their 90-percentile projections for the club to earn a wild-card berth.

Brandon Morrow, RP, Chicago Cubs

Cubs’ projected record (FanGraphs): 93-69
Cubs’ projected record (PECOTA): 91-71
Morrow’s projected 2018 WAR (Steamer): 0.7

Instead of picking up a proven closer to replace Wade Davis, who landed a mammoth $52-million deal with the Rockies, the Cubs opted for the value play in Morrow, the resurgent right-hander who dominated out of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ bullpen last year following a largely unsuccessful and injury-marred seven-year run as a starter. Armed with an 98-mph four-seamer and a nasty slider, Morrow crafted a 2.06 ERA with an 0.92 WHIP over 45 appearances, tossing 43 2/3 innings without allowing a home run while also managing the fifth-lowest expected wOBA(.211) in the majors (his postseason, incidentally, was a different story). Still, believing in a breakout season from a relief pitcher and building a bullpen around that guy are two entirely different things. Relievers are notoriously volatile, after all – only a handful can be relied upon to dominate year after year – and Morrow, who turns 34 in July, has been a good one for roughly 3 1/2 months. If he turns back into a pumpkin, or if he’s simply unable to stay healthy, the ninth inning could be a real problem for the Cubs, as each of Morrow’s potential replacements has some kind of red flag: C.J. Edwards struggles to throw strikes; Pedro Strop’s strikeout rate dropped significantly last year; and Steve Cishek can’t really get lefties out.

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Ranking the National League East in order of watchability

5. Miami Marlins

FANGRAPHS PROJ. RECORD PECOTA PROJ. RECORD MVP (STEAMER)
64-98 65-97 J.T. Realmuto (2.8 WAR)

 

Oof. This is … going to be a shame. An unwatchable, contemptible shame. Without Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich, and Dee Gordon – each of them liquidated in Derek Jeter’s barbaric offseason teardown – the Marlins are the baseball equivalent of the second season of “True Detective,” or anything starring Kevin Hart. Assuming he isn’t traded by the time you finish this sentence, their best player is J.T. Realmuto, who j– nope, he just got traded. Sorry. (Amazingly, the Marlins will still have a J.T. in their lineup on a regular basis in 2018: J.T. Riddle, who you probably best remember as the villain from the second Harry Potter book, will be their everyday shortstop once he’s fully recovered from shoulder surgery.) In a sense, the Marlins are the team that could most afford to be unwatchable, seeing as nobody watched them when they actually were watchable, but, like, yeesh. Imagine anyone saying these words in this order: “Man, I’m so stoked for the Marlins game tonight. Jose Urena is starting!”

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4. Philadelphia Phillies

FANGRAPHS PROJ. RECORD PECOTA PROJ. RECORD MVP (STEAMER)
75-87 81-81 Aaron Nola (3.9 WAR)

 

As the Phillies just proved, it’s virtually impossible to spend upward of $140 million on free agents in a single offseason and still wind up the least watchable team in your division (notable exception: the San Diego Padres). This is still a development year in Philadelphia, their winter spending spree notwithstanding, but aggressive re-investment in the 25-man roster suggests the Phillies think they’re close. Taking a look at their tentative Opening Day lineup, it’s not hard to see why: J.P. Crawford, their first-round pick in the 2013 draft, is a veritable toolshed; Rhys Hoskins, who turned 25 last week, blasted 18 homers in 50 games with the big-league club last year; Jorge Alfaro, who also dazzled in a late-season cameo with the Phillies in 2017, is widely considered the second-best catching prospect in the game. Now, in addition to those could-be superstars, the Phillies also have some legitimate, veteran studs in Carlos Santana, Pat Neshek (yes, he’s a reliever, I know), and former Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta. It’s a compelling mix. Oh yeah, and they still have Odubel Herrera, of course.

3. Atlanta Braves

FANGRAPHS PROJ. RECORD PECOTA PROJ. RECORD MVP (STEAMER)
72-90 76-86 Freddie Freeman (4.1 WAR)

 

Clearly, the Braves are a little behind the Phillies in terms of their rebuild timeline – following a 72-90 finish in 2017, the only major-league free agent they signed this offseason was Peter Moylan. But with all due respect to J.P. Crawford and Jake Arrieta, the Braves will still be more fun to watch than the Phillies in 2018, mostly because of Ronald Acuna, the consensus top prospect in baseball (non-Ohtani division) thusly summed up by Baseball Prospectus’ Jeffrey Paternostro in November:

Gary Sheffield came up in a discussion of the offensive profile to try to describe Acuna’s combination of bat speed and barrel control. He has potential 70 game power and an advanced, all-fields approach that doesn’t require him to sell out to tap into his mammoth pop. He has enough arm for right if you happen to have a 7 center fielder lying around your roster. This is how you smoke the upper minors as a 19-year-old. This is how you get an OFP 80.

Gary Sheffield! Dude is evoking comparisons to Gary Sheffield! Imagine having a 20-year-old Gary Sheffield in your team’s lineup. Hell, imagine having present-day Gary Sheffield in your team’s lineup. He’d still rake, I bet. Seriously, though, having the game’s most heralded prospect counts for a lot, watchability-wise, even though Acuna will spend at least the first couple weeks of the season embarrassing Triple-A competition for the purposes of service-time manipulation.

2. New York Mets

FANGRAPHS PROJ. RECORD PECOTA PROJ. RECORD MVP (STEAMER)
82-80 80-82 Noah Syndergaard (5.5)

 

Watching the Mets is probably best suited to horror-movie fans, because the initial serenity of, say, Noah Syndergaard blowing fools away with his 101-mph four-seamer is invariably followed by some gruesome scene, like Noah Syndergaard tearing a lat muscle because the club didn’t force him to take an MRI even after he complained of soreness. Still, while most Mets fans probably don’t care for that whisper of doom around the corner, it does make for objectively good entertainment, especially when you’re watching a team as talented as the Mets. No, really. Between Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz, Jason Vargas, and Seth Lugo, the Mets could conceivably have one of the game’s best rotations again, just like in 2016, while the new additions to their lineup – Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier, and, if you will, Amed Rosario – should definitely put them in a position to compete for a wild-card spot. Their grisly midseason demise will be epic.

1. Washington Nationals

FANGRAPHS PROJ. RECORD PECOTA PROJ. RECORD MVP (STEAMER)
89-73 88-74 Bryce Harper (5.7 WAR)

 

As usual, the Nationals will be a delight to watch this summer before they slip on a proverbial banana peel in the division series. If you can stomach the cognitive dissonance they inspire with their annual Jekyll and Hyde routine, the Nationals may be the best team in the league from a watchability perspective. Their lineup is totally stacked, with the obnoxiously talented and aggressively pompadoured Bryce Harper parked right in the middle of it all (and if you’re a Nats fan hankering for new drinking game to try out this season, take a shot every time a MASN broadcaster mentions Harper’s impending free agency; you’ll consistently be hammered by the third inning). Their rotation ranks among the game’s best, and each Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg start should be appointment viewing (frankly, neither pitcher gets enough love: Scherzer has as many Cy Young Awards as Clayton Freaking Kershaw, and Strasburg’s 29.0 percent strikeout rate is the second-highest of all time among pitchers with at least 1,000 career innings). And finally, as a division rival, they’ll play a principal role in the Mets’ inevitable combustion. That’s the trifecta, right there.

Posted in MLB

What to cheer for in 2018 for non-Astros fans

Like the gunslingers of generations past, the Houston Astros are a force to be reckoned with out west – specifically, the American League West – and anyone who dares trifle with the reigning champs, emboldened by their first-ever World Series title and trigger-happy one-through-nine, will be swiftly vanquished.

Jeff Luhnow, the Astros’ longtime general manager, knows it, too.

“I think we got a better team this year than we did last year,” Luhnow told MLB Network Radio.

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Conservatively, the Astros are going to win 95 games in 2018, and the two most prominent, publicly available projection models – FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus – have pegged them to finish closer to 100. Between Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer, and Alex Bregman, the Astros boast a trove of MVPs, recognized or not, while their ostensible worst starter, Charlie Morton, finished tied for 22nd in the majors in WAR last season, ahead of Robbie Ray and Ervin Santana – both of whom earned All-Star nominations. Tanking may be a contemptible practice, but the Astros’ burgeoning dynasty isn’t exactly a cautionary tale.

So what, then, can the rest of the AL West get up for in 2018, knowing that the Astros’ second straight division title is practically preordained? It’s still March, after all, and hope springs eternal at this time of year, but is there any reason for excitement in Anaheim, Seattle, Oakland, or Arlington? Well, of course there is!

Los Angeles Angels – Sho-time!

For the first time in years, the Angels actually have a pretty decent team behind Mike Trout thanks to a fine offseason of wheeling, dealing, and Shohei Ohtani-reeling from general manager Billy Eppler. It was so good, in fact, that the Angels, even with glaring deficiencies in their rotation, are some observers’ favorite for the second American League wild-card berth (although, in fairness, the league’s glut of non-competitive teams has helped their prospects in a big way, too).

Irrespective of their postseason chances, though, the Angels are going to be an unbelievably fun team to follow this year, seeing as they now have the game’s best player (Trout) and its most compelling attraction (Ohtani). Trout, the two-time MVP who managed a career-best 1.071 OPS (187 OPS+) in 2017, is never not entertaining, after all, and it should be both fascinating and frustrating watching manager Mike Scioscia try to incorporate Ohtani into the offense on his non-pitching days; his starts, meanwhile, at least at the outset of the campaign, will be appointment viewing, his unimpressive spring notwithstanding.

Seattle Mariners – Ichiro’s return

Typically, at this time of year, pundits are heaping praise on Jerry Dipoto for the 742 marginal moves he brokered over the preceding winter months and picking the Mariners’ as a wild-card team. This year, however, while only the most optimistic prognosticators have the Mariners sneaking into the postseason, Dipoto should be anointed Executive of the Year for repatriating Ichiro Suzuki, the 44-year-old legend who, following an extended sojourn in Miami (via New York), has returned to Seattle on a one-year deal.

Now, is there a quantitative argument to be made that Ichiro’s roster spot should go to someone who can actually improve the Mariners’ remote playoff chances? I mean, sure. But do you want to be the person who craps all over his long-awaited return to the Mariners, the club that brought him over from Japan back in 2001 and watched him bloom into an eventual first-ballot Hall of Famer? Don’t be that person. And to you, Mariners fans, rather than bemoan another middling season and the continuation of the longest playoff drought in the majors, just relish this final summer with Ichiro. Head down to Safeco early to watch him smack BP homers. Give him a standing ovation before every at-bat. Shower him with praise after every spectacular catch. Because he’ll be gone before you know it, and this time for good.

Oakland Athletics – Prospects, prospects, prospects!

Languishing in a perpetual rebuild is no way to live, and while the A’s are once again poised to field one of the worst teams in the majors in 2018, at least a few of their most prized prospects are expected to spend considerable time with the big-league club this year.

Of the three A’s prospects on the recent Top 100 list at MLB.com, for example, the most highly regarded position player, 22-year-old Franklin Barreto, has already made his big-league debut and is expected to be Oakland’s everyday shortstop this year after hitting .290/.339/.456 with 15 homers and 15 stolen bases at Triple-A in 2017. A.J. Puk, meanwhile, received at least semi-serious consideration for a rotation spot this spring despite making just 13 starts above High-A in 2017, his first full professional season, in which he struck out a whopping 34.5 percent of opposing hitters; if all goes well, the 6-foot-7 left-hander will make his A’s debut in June, after the club has manipulated his service time to the point that he won’t be eligible for a fourth year of salary arbitration. Finally, Jorge Mateo, a speedy shortstop acquired from the New York Yankees in the Sonny Gray trade, could also find himself in Oakland come July, as the 22-year-old hit .296/.357/.521 with eight homers, 14 doubles, and 10 triples with 24 stolen bases in 60 games at Double-A last season. (Honorable mention goes to roster hopeful Dustin Fowler, another gem acquired in the Gray deal, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in his MLB debut with the Yankees before getting shipped to Oakland.) It’s easy to be cynical in Oakland, of course, given the club’s track record, but the wealth of impact talent on the horizon is reason for optimism.

Texas Rangers – Beltre’s potential swan song

When it comes to the venerable elder statesmen of the AL West, Ichiro is definitely the straight man, all austere and regimented, and Adrian Beltre is his zany foil, a Cooperstown-bound goofball whose talents are (almost) as compelling as his hilarious antics. Sadly, not unlike Ichiro, Beltre’s future beyond 2018 remains murky, as he turns 39 in a few weeks and his contract expires at season’s end. If he wants to keep playing, he probably will – last year, though he played only 94 games, Beltre still managed a .915 OPS (135 OPS+) – but it’d be presumptuous to think the four-time All-Star will definitely be back in Arlington next year, swatting home runs from down on one knee and horsing around with Elvis Andrus.

As such, while Rangers fans can invest their emotional currency, if they so choose, in what’s likely to be an unrealized wild-card run, they would probably be better served just coming out to the ballpark to enjoy the terrific theater that is Beltre, a walking GIF who messes with anybody and everybody on the diamond (umpires included) and happens to have 3,048 hits and 462 home runs on his resume. And, for at least one more season, he’s all yours, Rangers fans. Cherish him.

Posted in MLB

5 burning questions in the American League East

1.Who’s the favorite between the Red Sox and revamped Yankees?

There really wasn’t a wrong answer to this question three weeks ago. Obviously, the Yankees’ lineup improved dramatically this winter with the acquisition of Giancarlo Stanton, but the Red Sox upgraded, too, adding J.D. Martinez to more-or-less the same roster that won 93 games in 2017 despite their lackluster offense. Thanks to the tireless efforts, however, of Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, along with some injury trouble at Red Sox camp, it’s increasingly difficult to view the longtime rivals as division co-favorites: the Yankees are the team to beat in the American League East.

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Last week, not long after acquiring Brandon Drury from Arizona, Cashman signed veteran infielder Neil Walker to a hilariously inexpensive one-year deal, raising the floor that much more for a team that already had considerable depth and a crazy-high ceiling. Now, the Yankees can take their time, if need be, with their two highly touted infield prospects, Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar, both of whom were optioned back to the minors last week; with Walker and Drury, their newly fortified lineup is deep enough to withstand some regression from Aaron Judge or Aaron Hicks, or another potential injury to Greg Bird. And if their prospects do force Cashman’s hand by tearing up Triple-A out of the gate, look out. Come July, the Yankees’ lineup could look something like: Brett Gardner (LF), Aaron Judge (RF), Giancarlo Stanton (DH), Gary Sanchez (C), Greg Bird (1B), Didi Gregorius (SS), Neil Walker (3B), Aaron Hicks (CF), Gleyber Torres (2B). My sympathies to all American League pitchers.

For argument’s sake, though, let’s even say the two lineups are a wash – Judge could suffer through a brutal sophomore slump, after all, and Stanton has been fairly injury-prone throughout his career (he averaged only 115 games per season from 2012 through 2016); besides, the Red Sox underperformed at the plate last year, anyway. Well, with Drew Pomeranz’s elbow barking, Steven Wright still recovering from surgery, and Eduardo Rodriguez likely out at least the first couple weeks of the season, the Yankees also have the superior rotation (even though the Red Sox have the division’s best starter in Chris Sale), and New York’s bullpen is the best in the majors, too – maybe the best in history. Let’s get a little more quantitative, though, and take a gander at the projections for their respective pitching staffs, courtesy of FanGraphs:

PITCHER (NYY) WAR PITCHER (BOS) WAR
Luis Severino 4.9 Chris Sale 5.4
Masahiro Tanaka 3.6 David Price 3.6
Sonny Gray 3.3 Rick Porcello 2.5
CC Sabathia 1.6 Drew Pomeranz 2.4
Jordan Montgomery 2.1 Steven Wright 0.7
Aroldis Chapman 2.2 Craig Kimbrel 2.3
David Robertson 1.6 Carson Smith 0.8
Tommy Kahnle 1.1 Joe Kelly 0.7
Dellin Betances 1.2 Matt Barnes 0.2
Chad Green 0.9 Heath Hembree 0.2
Adam Warren 0.2 Bobby Poyner 0.0
Chasen Shreve 0.1 Roenis Elias -0.2
 Total 22.8 18.6

Start spreading the news: the Yankees are terrifying.

2.Can the Blue Jays contend for the second wild-card spot?

The short answer is: yes, they can. Not only are they far more talented than their 76-86 record from last season suggests – only two teams lost more days to injury, with Josh Donaldson, Aaron Sanchez, Devon Travis, and Russell Martin each spending considerable time on the disabled list – but general manager Ross Atkins insured this winter against the likelihood of injuries to some of his key contributors in 2018 by adding versatile, high-floor reinforcements like Randal Grichuk, Yangervis Solarte, and Curtis Granderson. Perhaps more importantly, though, the shrinking middle-class in the American League has effectively reduced the pool of contenders for the second wild-card spot to, like, three teams: the Los Angeles Angels, Minnesota Twins, and Toronto; every other AL club, according to FanGraphs’ projection model, is either winning 90-plus games or finishing below .500.

Even with dramatically improved depth and health, though, for the Blue Jays to eke one last playoff push out of their current competitive window, they have to get off to a strong start – something they’ve consistently failed to do in recent years. Over the past five seasons, the Blue Jays have managed a ghastly 52-74 record (.413) in April, and their early-season woes reached a nadir last year when they dropped 11 of their first 13 games and didn’t come within 4 1/2 games of first place in the division after April 12. If they aren’t within striking distance at the All-Star break, the Blue Jays will likely look to unload their expiring assets ahead of the non-waiver trade deadline, namely Donaldson, J.A. Happ, and Marco Estrada – each of whom will be free agents next winter – and possibly even players who remain under team control through 2019, like Justin Smoak and Jaime Garcia.

3.What can the Red Sox expect out of David Price?

Following an injury-marred 2017 campaign in which Price battled on-again, off-again elbow trouble, the Red Sox can reasonably expect one of two things to happen this season: either he’ll pitch effectively, because, when healthy, Price is still an elite starter with top-end stuff, or he’ll continue to deal with debilitating injury problems and miss an extended chunk of the season, because he’s a pitcher, and pitchers break. Banking, at this point, on one or the other, flies in the face of everything we know about pitcher injuries, which is mostly nothing. For what it’s worth, Price, who took a “laid-back” approach this spring to avoid running out of gas midway through the summer, was masterful in his Grapefruit League debut last week, allowing just two baserunners while fanning five over four shutout innings Thursday at JetBlue Park. And he said earlier this month that he’s no longer thinking about the elbow problems that limited him to 74 2/3 innings – his fewest since his 2008 debut year – last season.

“I think I’m ready to have my best year,” Price said recently. “I just haven’t had two good years here. If I would have had an average year for myself (it would) still be my best year here, by far. I look to go out there and dominate like I know I’m capable of doing, and that’s what I expect to do.”

4.Should the newly rebuilding Rays trade Chris Archer?

Realistically, the Rays are going to trade him at some point – ask David Price or James Shields or Evan Longoria or Jake Odorizzi; this is what the Rays do – but the club would be remiss to unload him now, notwithstanding ownership’s aversion to paying players more than the bare minimum.

Though his defense-independent numbers have been consistently excellent since 2014, Archer’s ERA has hovered around league average in each of the past two seasons (4.05) largely on account of his curiously low strand rate. As such, the two-time All-Star isn’t exactly at the peak of his value right now, and the recent dip in performance, as superficial as it may be, will have significant consequences in a trade market that skewed in favor of buyers all offseason: in exchange for Odorizzi, for example, the Rays got a 20-year-old shortstop who didn’t crack the Minnesota Twins’ top 30 prospects list last year; Odorizzi isn’t nearly as talented as Archer, of course, but the 27-year-old still boasts a 3.71 ERA (108 ERA+) over the last three years and remains arbitration-eligible through 2019. The return in prospect capital felt similarly underwhelming in the deals that sent Longoria and Andrew McCutchen to San Francisco, though, in fairness, the former is still owed a ton of money and the latter is a free agent next winter. The point is, though, right now, Archer couldn’t command a fraction of what, say, the Chicago White Sox got last offseason for Chris Sale, so the Rays ought to hang onto him and allow him to restore some of his value before they ship him off. And because Archer’s contract is so reasonable, even in this increasingly depressed baseball economy, the Rays can take their time, if they so please; they can trade him next offseason, they can ship him off two winters from now, or they can move him ahead of the 2020 trade deadline. And, who knows, maybe they’ll actually be competitive again a couple years down the road and have to reevaluate whether to trade him at all?

5.Which team is Manny Machado playing for on Aug. 1?

All winter long, Machado’s name surfaced in trade rumors, but for reasons unbeknownst to most of us – Did owner Peter Angelos kibosh a deal? Were the offers they received just too underwhelming? Do they actually think they can compete? – the Orioles decided not to move him. Put another way, the Orioles spent the winter delaying the inevitable, likely to their own detriment, because it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that Machado will be traded ahead of this year’s deadline. The only question is: to whom?

Well, any team that would be willing to pull the trigger on Machado would seemingly need to meet four criteria: 1) the club must be a serious contender for a playoff berth; 2) the club must have a relatively deep stable of high-end prospects; 3) the club’s incumbent shortstop must be significantly worse than Machado; 4) the club’s incumbent shortstop must not be signed to a long-term deal.

NAME (TEAM) 2018 WAR (STEAMER) TEAM’S PROJECTED RECORD
Francisco Lindor (CLE) 6.1 93-69
Manny Machado 5.6
Carlos Correa (HOU) 5.4 101-61
Corey Seager (LAD) 5.2 94-68
Trea Turner (WAS) 4.0 90-72
Andrelton Simmons (LAA) 3.5 84-78
Xander Bogaerts (BOS) 3.4 93-69
Brandon Crawford (SFG) 3.0 82-80
Addison Russell (CHC) 2.9 94-68
Didi Gregorius (NYY) 2.6 95-67
Elvis Andrus (TEX) 2.1 78-84
Paul DeJong (STL) 2.1 87-75
Jean Segura (SEA) 2.0 80-82
Troy Tulowitzki (TOR) 1.9 86-76

Right off the bat, then, that likely eliminates the Indians, Astros, Dodgers, and Nationals, each a presumed division champion with a shortstop either better or nearly as good as Machado. The Angels, Blue Jays, Mariners, Cardinals, and Rangers are out, too, as they’ve all committed significant long-term resources to their current shortstops and likely wouldn’t be willing, for one reason or another, to displace them, even for a potential postseason run. Ostensibly, that leaves the Yankees, Red Sox, Giants, and Cubs as potential suitors, but it seems unlikely the Orioles would trade Machado to a division rival, and both New York and Boston have excellent shortstops already, as well as tremendous depth at the left side of the infield. Ultimately, then, it comes down to the Giants and the Cubs – assuming, of course, the Giants are even in the wild-card race and have the pieces, following the McCutchen and Longoria trades, to convince the Orioles to give up Machado. And those may not be fair assumptions to make.

As such, we’re predicting that Machado will be wearing a Cubs uniform come August. While their incumbent, Addison Russell, is seemingly a part of their long-term plans, he’s coming off a disappointing season in which he took a considerable step back both offensively and defensively, and the Cubs are clearly comfortable swapping prospect capital for major additions at the trade deadline when a division title is within reach, shipping Gleyber Torres, Adam Warren, and two other prospects to the Yankees for Aroldis Chapman in 2016, then swapping Eloy Jimenez and another three prospects for Jose Quintana last July.

Posted in MLB

MLB 2017 Season Preview

National League West

FanPicks examines the National League West division for the upcoming Major League Baseball season. Get ready for fantasy baseball.

Arizona DiamondBacks

The D-backs have the core of a strong offense with do-it-all Paul Goldschmidt, power bats in Jake Lamb and Yasmany Tomas and speed/power guy A.J. Pollock, whose absence had a lot to do with the team’s unexpected struggles a year ago. For the D-backs to have any kind of chance in the stacked NL West, however, their young starters behind Zack Greinke will need to take another step forward, and signed free-agent Fernando Rodney must thrive as the closer.

Colorado Rockies

Being in contention is realistic if the young rotation continues to improve and the bullpen, unlike last year, becomes an asset. And the bullpen should be better with the addition of Mike Dunn and the return of Jairo Diaz as well as young pitching prospects like Jeff Hoffman, German Marquez and Kyle Freeland, who could be moved temporarily to the bullpen to fortify that area.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Going into the offseason, the Dodgers’ goal was simple — keep as much of the roster intact as possible. They went 3-for-3 in the most important parts of that process, re-signing Kenley Jansen, Justin Turner and Rich Hill. Given the likelihood of better health this year, another year of maturity for the young players like Corey Seager and the fruits of a loaded farm system, the Dodgers appear to be the most obvious threat to the Chicago Cubs’ reign over the National League.

San Francisco Giants

The Giants remain one of the league’s most stable and successful franchises. They should receive plenty of quality innings from their rotation along with clean defensive games from a dynamic infield — a great recipe for getting leads, winning series and marching back to October.

San Diego Padres

Petco Park is a great place for fans to enjoy craft beer and good food. Sadly, good baseball doesn’t appear to be on the menu anytime soon as the Padres trot out a young team. Yes, it’ll be great for fans who like to see top prospects. Manager Andy Green suggested late last year that everyone “embrace the process.” That’s not exactly what most fans want to hear after watching too much losing ball over the decades. There will be far more growing pains than big moments.

Posted in MLB

MLB 2017 Season Preview

National League East

FanPicks examines the National League East division for the upcoming Major League Baseball season. Get ready for fantasy baseball.

Atlanta Braves

The Braves are in an enviable position for a team on a rebuilding track. They already have a franchise player in Freddie Freeman and the makings of one in Dansby Swanson. They have a couple of players who have already bloomed into good role players, but they really only have a starter kit for a pitching staff beyond Julio Teheran and too many positions where they will be fielding placeholders. The consensus is that the Braves have one of the best farm systems in the game after their flurry of trades, but while some of the youngsters will be seen at SunTrust Park this year, it will be another two years at least before they are collectively ready to make their mark.

Miami Marlins

Whether the Marlins snap baseball’s second-longest postseason drought (13; the Mariners’ streak stands at 15) depends upon their success at resolving the rotation. In the end, the biggest factor will be health. The Marlins were at the top of the Wild Card standings until injuries became too much to overcome with their lack of depth.

New York Mets

If the starting rotation of Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz all pitch to their talent level, the Mets could be scary good and have a rotation that rivals any in baseball. And the lineup could be in the top half of the NL, too, with enough hitters still around their prime. But there are no certainties with the Mets, as we’ve learned in recent seasons. If all goes well, this is a team capable of winning the World Series. If it doesn’t, the Mets could struggle to reach .500.

Philadelphia Phillies

The experience gained by a handful of important young players should allow for more improvement in 2017, though the offense is still woefully short of making this team a contender. Finding out which young players are going to be difference makers and getting even more youngsters to the majors remains the chief goal.

Washington Nationals

Ninety-five wins, the same number as 2016, would be a pretty good over-under for the Nationals in 2017. They shouldn’t have too much trouble winning the NL East, a division they carried by eight games last year. But the question remains whether they have the firepower to get past whatever other team emerges as playoff competition in October. But success in October is fickle, and this year could be the Nats’ year, if only because the law of averages says it should be.

Posted in MLB

MLB 2017 Season Preview

American League West

FanPicks examines the American League West division for the upcoming Major League Baseball season. Get ready for fantasy baseball.

Houston Astros

A rebound seems plausible. The team finished five games out of the Wild Card, but they didn’t have highly touted prospect Alex Bregman, Cuban import Yuli Gurriel, gold glover Josh Reddick, all-star catcher Brian McCann, or a settled bullpen when they began the 2016 season. The Rangers were a record-setting 36–11 in one-run games, an indicator more of luck than skill, so some regression is to be expected, and the Mariners have become one of the league’s oldest teams. Given Houston’s depth on the field and in the bullpen, a modestly better performance by the rotation could propel the Astros back to October baseball.

Los Angeles Angels

From 2002 through 2014, the Angels won at least 90 games seven times, won six division titles, reached the ALCS three times and won the franchise’s only World Series championship in 2002. This is a much different era. Though GM Billy Eppler defiantly says the Angels “intend to contend” in 2017, the road to fourth place is paved with good intentions.

Oakland Athletics

The A’s play in an antiquated stadium. They don’t draw well. They trade their top players instead of paying them top dollar, making it tough for fans to be faithful. Of course, the sentiment would improve if the A’s got off to a quick start, re-energized their fan base and even took steps toward constructing a baseball-only facility in Oakland. Miracles do happen.

Seattle Mariners

It seems unlikely that heavy hitters Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager can improve much on the stellar production of last year. But GM Jerry Dipoto has been very aggressive in building up the roster depth around his star trio, which should allow the Mariners to be competitive in a very tough American League West. It will come down to how their new-look starting rotation performs.

Texas Rangers

A third-straight AL West title is within reach. The Rangers have two aces in the rotation in Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish, a top-flight bullpen and offensive firepower. That combination will help them stay in contention in the AL West, but the rest of the rotation needs to carry its weight. Shin-Soo Choo and Adrian Beltre must stay healthy, newcomer Mike Napoli needs to keep slugging, and DH must be productive to make a push for a three-peat.

Posted in MLB

MLB Opening Day Daily Fantasy Lineup

The day is finally here. The major league baseball season is now officially upon us, so Fanpicks is here to present to you our MLB Opening Day Daily Fantasy Lineup.

As everyone is starting off fresh, field players range between the $4800 and $2000 range. Mike Trout is the only exception to the rule at $5000.

Of course, pitchers are the gold mine of the sport ranging anywhere from Clayton Kershaw‘s $11000 cap hit, to Wily Paralta‘s $4300.

I opted for a slightly cheaper David Price instead of big-money Kershaw. The Red Sox new ace has a nice matchup against the not-so potent Cleveland Indians at 1 pm, so I’m looking to start off the season with a bang from my most expensive peice.

Take a look at the rest of my MLB Opening Day Daily Fantasy Lineup.

mlbopeningday

Bryce Harper is the “highest-paid” bat in my lineup. With a steady dose of up-and-comers, I needed to balance the risk of inconsistency out with a star veteran.

Cincinnati’s Joey Votto was also selected for the same reasons, and a strong spring leads me to believe he may start this season off with a bang.

While he may not have a ton of power, Jason Heyward should be a nice fantasy option this season. He is expected to bat second on Opening Day,  and should remain behind Dexter Fowler, and in front of some combination of Ben Zobrist, Anthony Rizzo, and Kris Bryant, so expect him to score a lot of runs this year.

Posted in MLB

MLB Baseball Fantasy Preview

New York Mets vs Kansas City Royals

It’s that time of the year where the highly anticipated MLB season will freshly begin. The New York Mets will be travelling to Kauffman Stadium where they will face the defending MLB Champions, Kansas City Royals. FanPicks is proud to bring you this MLB Baseball Fantasy preview. Come play in our MLB Grand Slam Contest where you can win up to a $1 million this week at FanPicks.

MLB Baseball Fantasy Preview

Edinson Volquez will be the starter for the Royals as they defend World Series championship at the expense of the same New York Mets.

He had a 13-9 record with a 3.55 ERA the past campaign. During the World Series, he actually started the first game and in Game 5 against the Mets. He didn’t earn the wins as the bullpen of the Royals really helped. He was 8-4 on home starts with a .348 ERA.

Greg Holland’s loss as a reliever to the Royals will be compensated by the addition of Joakim Soria. Soria had 24 saves with a 2.53 ERA for the Pirates last year.

Speaking of the Royals’ relievers, the unit is minus Greg Holland, who is now a free agent. That said, the addition of Joakim Soria should soften the blow of Holland’s loss. Soria had 24 saves and a 2.53 ERA for Pittsburgh last season.

Kansas City will be hoping that their offense remains productive on offense. They may lack in power but for some reason, they’ve been mastering in putting the balls in play. They showed it especially against the Mets during the World Series. They were 2nd last in The AL with only 139 runs but 2nd in the major for batting average with runners in scoring position explaining their success.

 

Matt Harvey will be the starter for the New York Mets this Opening Day.

The Mets have questionably the best rotation in the MLB. Harvey was 13-8 with a 2.71 ERA last season. He made 4 playoffs appearance last year and went 2-0 with a 3.04 ERA. Harvey has a 5-5 record on 12 road starts last year with a 3.42 ERA.

For their offensive weapons, the Mets can count on the bats of Yoenis Cespedes, David Wright and Curtis Granderson. Cespedes arrived during the middle of the season in New York after a trade and literally transformed the Mets’ offense into a feared one. His 17 home runs in 57 games were quite impressive. He was very calm in the World Series going 3 for 17 only.

 

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Posted in MLB

Daily Fantasy Baseball 2016 Arizona DiamondBacks

FanPicks is getting ready for the upcoming daily fantasy baseball 2016 MLB season. Set your timer for April 3rd opening day. With over a million dollars to win this MLB season at FanPicks, it’s time for you to register right here, right now!

With two bold pitching acquisitions, the Diamondbacks turned themselves into a contender. The off-season signing of free agent ace Zack Greinke to a six-year, $206.5 million deal seemed to push another step forward in the right direction. Upper management also reinforced the rotation with  right-hander Shelby Miller. With a powerful offense already in place, the D-backs will be a threat this year.Fantasy Baseball

Player to watch:

  • SP Zack Greinke
  • SP Patrick Corbin
  • 1B Paul Goldschmidt

Greinke was one the best available starters on the market this winter, and the D-backs’ five-hour contact-to-contract machinations on Dec. 4 were the no short of amazing. Greinke was “minutes,” he said, from signing with another club, that is believed to be the Los Angeles Dodgers, before the D-backs swooped in after managing partner Ken Kendrick included some deferred money to make the numbers work. Greinke was 51–15 with a 2.30 ERA in his three yeas with the Dodgers organization. Last year, he led the majors in ERA, WHIP and WAR, showing control of four pitches while going 19–3 with a 1.66 ERA.

Lefthander Patrick Corbin was an All-Star in 2013, but missed the entire 2014 season because of Tommy John surgery. He returned in the latter part of 2015 and showed signs of previous brilliance while blowing off the rust. On a strict pitch count, Corbin made five straight quality starts while throwing 85 pitches or fewer. He’s the first pitcher since Bryn Smith in 1988 accomplish that feat. Corbin was 5–2 with a 1.61 ERA in the nine starts last year, in which he performed for at least six innings.

First baseman Paul Goldschmidt is one of the finest player in baseball, a virtuoso in every step of the game. He is the foundation upon which the franchise is built, and he is signed and sealed through 2019.

Posted in MLB