This could be a memorable season for baseball fans. With teams like the Chicago Cubs (no World Series championships since 1908) and Cleveland Indians (no World Series championships since 1948) in the hunt for the pennant, everyone is eagerly anticipating a historic climax. The media will continue to fantasize about a dream World Series match-up of the Cubs vs. well, anyone really, but, if you’ve been following my writing since the outset of the season, you know I’m not as sold on the North Siders as everyone else.
I still think their young lineup will struggle against top pitching when the playoffs roll around. But instead of focusing on what won’t happen in the next few months, let’s take a look at 11 things that will (according to this writer anyway). Along with each prediction, I’ve set out the objective odds it will come to pass.
1. The Baltimore Orioles finish third in the A.L. East and miss the playoffs
There’s plenty to be excited about for baseball fans in Baltimore. The O’s have been a pleasant surprise since starting the season 7-0. MVP candidate Manny Machado leads their notoriously powerful lineup. Offense generally headlines O’s victories but they’ve been doing a lot of things well. They’re one of the best defensive teams in the MLB and have been anchored by an excellent bullpen. Closer Zach Britton has been outstanding and leads the American League in saves.
There are two reasons why the Orioles will fade to third in the East and miss the postseason: they have questionable starting pitching and face a treacherous schedule. The final 50 games include trips to Toronto, Boston, Detroit, Washington, and San Francisco. Baltimore also hosts the playoff-contending Red Sox (six games), Blue Jays, and Nationals. The starting rotation has held up so far but I see it faltering during the pennant chase. They will face too many quality lineups in too many high stress situations. Chris Tillman has emerged as the staff ace, but has shown recent signs of vulnerability.
2. Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer prove to be the difference as the Nationals win the NLCS
Some folks in San Francisco may disagree but the Cubs and Nationals have proven to be the most complete teams in the National League. Both are well-managed squads which have beefed up their bullpens in recent weeks. The Cubs have a significant advantage offensively but the Nats are the team to beat because of healthy starting pitching.
Strasburg (15-2) and Scherzer (12-7) have stabilized the Washington rotation by combining to throw over 300 innings already. The dueling aces have identical 2.80 ERAs and are both in the NL’s top-five in strikeouts. Third starter Tanner Roark has quietly had a solid season and will provide necessary depth in October. If this staff stays healthy, Washington is the team to beat in the National League.
3. Andrew McCutchen gets hot and leads the Pirates to the Wild Card Game
The Pirates are on the short-list to be the most disappointing team in the National League, but hope is not lost. Perhaps the biggest reason for their struggles has been the season-long slump of five-time All-Star Andrew McCutchen. His drop-off in production has been puzzling and extreme. His .319 on-base percentage and .404 slugging percentage are down from career averages of .382 and .488, respectively. The middle of the Pittsburgh lineup was expected to have one of the most prolific bats in the NL. Instead, McCutchen has been average at best.
Manager Clint Hurdle rested his struggling center fielder for three straight games in Atlanta last week. Since then, the former MVP has taken a more disciplined approach at the plate. The hits haven’t come quite yet, but McCutchen is suddenly drawing walks and looks more like his old self. The Pirates have plenty of solid bats and some interesting young pitching. While catching the Cubs is too much to ask, six weeks of a red-hot Andrew McCutchen will put the Bucs back in the Wild Card Game.
4. The Giants overcome their recent slump and cruise to the NL West title
An argument could be made that San Francisco had the best team in the majors until the All-Star break. (They had the best record, anyway.) The Giants took a commanding lead divisional lead into the hiatus and it looked like they might run away with the West. Instead, the wheels have come off since the break. The outstanding starting rotation has faltered and the mediocre offense has gone into a collective slump. The Dodgers have been hot and are now right behind the Giants in the standings.
However, there’s still plenty of reason for optimism by the Bay. This is one of the most well-organized and fundamentally solid teams in baseball. Manager Bruce Bochy has the luxury of putting ace pitcher Madison Bumgarner on the mound every fifth game and San Francisco has a favorable home schedule down the stretch. Perhaps the biggest thing going for SF is the fact that Clayton Kershaw remains on the Dodgers’ disabled list. Even if Kershaw does come back healthy, the Dodgers will have a difficult time keeping pace.
5. Consistent pitching leads the Indians to the AL Central title
Most of the contending teams in the American League have outstanding hitting and questionable pitching; Cleveland is just the opposite. The Indians trot out a quality starter every night, but could use another productive bat. The pitching staff just took a bit of a hit when Danny Salazar was put on the 15-day disabled list but the Tribe should be able to weather the storm just fine.
Detroit’s recent surge has made the Central interesting, and the Tigers should remain competitive in the Wild Card chase. I don’t see them catching the Indians, though. The Cleveland lineup can go quiet at time, but it also boasts one of the most exciting players in baseball; Francisco Lindor continues to dazzle in his second season. The dynamic shortstop excels in all aspects of the game and should lead Cleveland back to the postseason.
6. Cubs teammates Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo finish 1st and 2nd in the NL MVP vote
This one probably shouldn’t happen, but the media is obsessed with the Chicago Cubs. Daniel Murphy (Nationals) and Nolan Arenado (Rockies) are having great seasons and deserve to be in the MVP mix. However, Cubs highlights have dominated the summer and that tends to trick the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.
Bryant and Rizzo may not deserve to finish first and second but they’re unquestionably having outstanding seasons. The duo is on pace to collectively score over 200 runs and drive in another 200-plus. They’re the two biggest reasons for the Cubs offensive success. Their names will continue to be in the news this fall and, for the most part, it’s deserved.
7. The Red Sox capture the AL Pennant by outslugging the competition
The 2015 American League playoffs were a circus. Every series was exciting and could have gone either way. The 2016 version will likely be similar. Most of the contenders have excellent batting orders but pitching staffs that will struggle to consistently get outs. Outstanding hitting is currently the American League style and the Boston Red Sox do it best.
Boston has seven everyday players with an OPS of .785 or better and leads the majors in scoring by a wide margin. The general rule is that the best pitching wins in October, but this year’s AL playoffs will likely be an exception. The Red Sox will win a series-long slugfest against anyone.
8. The Twins finish with at least 76 wins, making them a .500 team since April
This is a bit of a stretch, but the Twins are playing well and consistently providing a lot of value to bettors. Minnesota was an atrocious 24-53 through the first three months of the season. Since then, they’ve been competitive and keep on improving. This squad is filled with young talent which has found confidence. The offense is solid and the starting pitching keeps getting better. The bullpen still can’t be trusted but this is clearly a team to watch. (Remember that they finished four games over .500 last season.)
9. No pitcher wins 20 games
Most pitchers have about nine or ten starts left this season. Objectively, odds are that someone will reach 20 wins. But J.A. Happ (Blue Jays) of all people leads the majors in wins with 16; Rick Porcello (Red Sox) and Stephen Strasburg (Nationals) are sitting on 15. Strasburg is the likely NL Cy Young Award winner and is the favorite to finish with the most wins in baseball, but he finds himself on the DL all too often and the Nats may want to get him rest down the stretch.
Most of the other pitchers within reach of 20 wins play on contending teams, as well, and individual accomplishments will not be prioritized. Having a healthy staff full of fresh arms for the postseason will be.
10. Jose Altuve becomes the first player since 2010 (Josh Hamilton) to finish the season with a .350+ batting average
The Astros 2B is the hardest man in baseball to get out. The AL MVP candidate has a reasonable shot to hit .350 thanks to his great speed and excellent discipline at the plate. He’s only 5’6 (which is probably more like 5’4) so pitchers are dealing with a shrunken strike zone. Altuve waits until they find the zone and then crushes the ball. He could potentially hit .350 with 25 HR, 100 RBI, 120 runs scored, .425 OBP, and .570 slugging percentage. Oh, by the way, he’ll steal close to 40 bases, too. Altuve is a great player in his absolute prime. Don’t expect a slump.
11. The Texas Rangers win the AL West but falter in October
Popular sentiment is that the Rangers won the trade deadline. The acquisitions of Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Beltran are expected to put this prolific offense over the top and make Texas the favorite in the American League. The early results support this claim as the Rangers have played well, re-establishing their commanding lead in the West. The lead is substantial enough that it’s tough to imagine the surging Mariners or the capable Astros catching up.
The Rangers will continue to clobber bad pitching and cruise into the postseason. However, for Texas to be competitive in October, starting pitchers Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish must be healthy and at their best. Hamels has been excellent and is in the mix for the AL Cy Young. Darvish, whose battled injuries all season, appears to be getting right for the stretch run. This is one of the few teams capable of winning it all. But Texas will still have a hard time outslugging the Red Sox (see prediction no. 7) and the unstable staff won’t be enough of a difference-maker.
Featured image: Keith Allison (flickr) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode].