MLB season preview

MLB season preview

By Scott A. Nicol

Sports Editor Scott A. Nicol predicts who will win each division in baseball, the wild card winners and the World Series matchup. Predictions are based on offseason moves, current roster talent and possible trades. 

It’s the most wonderful time of the year again: MLB season and postseason predictions.

The MLB season returns to action 3:10 p.m. Sunday when the Arizona Diamondbacks host the San Francisco Giants, and at 7:30 p.m. the Sunday Night Baseball game will feature the reigning World Series Champion, the Chicago Cubs heading to St. Louis, Missouri to face the Cardinals.

Division winners

N.L West Division predicted winner: San Francisco Giants

The division is up for grabs as really any team outside of the San Diego Padres should be competing for a division championship.

The easy pick would be the Los Angeles Dodgers, as they have the best pitcher in baseball, Clayton Kershaw, but outside of Kershaw, the pitching staff has too many question marks.

Starting pitcher Rich Hill is coming off a career year in which he went a combined 12-5 with a 2.12 ERA in 110 innings pitched but turned 37 years old on March 11 and will be expected to duplicate the results over a full season, which will be difficult.

The Dodgers also have one of the best pitching prospects in the game in Julio Urias, but to expect him to take over as the number two or three starter at 20 years old is unrealistic.

The Giants have the experience with pitchers Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto and Matt Moore to go along with catcher Buster Posey and shortstop Brandon Crawford. I believe the San Francisco Giants will win the division.

Be on the lookout for the Diamondbacks to surprise some teams as well, especially if Zack Greinke can return to Cy Young form.

N.L. Central Division predicted winner: Chicago Cubs

There appears to be little competition for the Chicago Cubs, as they look to win back-to-back World Series titles for the first time since 1908.

The target will be on their backs, and the pitching staff has question marks near the back end of the rotation with aging pitcher John Lackey and uncertainty about pitcher Brett Anderson and Mike Montgomery, with Anderson being named the fifth starter.

They have the depth in the farm system and major league level to trade for a pitcher at the deadline if necessary.

Led by pitchers Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks plus the most potent offense in baseball, it looks to be a certain lock for the Cubs to return to the playoffs as division winners.

Don’t sleep on those pesky Cardinals who always seem to be in the division race.

The Pittsburgh Pirates could also be a team in contention, as they have a potent lineup and talented pitchers in Gerrit Cole and Ivan Nova — as well as highly-touted pitching prospects Tyler Glasnow and James Taillon who will look to make a mark on this year’s team.

They could be trouble for the Cubs if the Cubs’ pitching doesn’t hold up.

N.L East Division predicted winner: Washington Nationals

There are several good teams, but unlike the other N.L. divisions, there is no standout team.

If the New York Mets can spark some offense other than outfielder Yoenis Cespedes and if their pitching staff remains healthy, they could be a force to be reckoned with.

The Miami Marlins would be a sneaky pick if not for the unfortunate death of 24-year-old pitching phenom Jose Fernandez in September. The Marlins’ lineup is stout, but without a true ace, it is hard to envision them coming out on top of the East.

The N.L. East division winner will be the Washington Nationals.

They boast the second-deepest pitching rotation in baseball, even if starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg gets hurt, which feels inevitable at this point in his career, as he’s only started 30 or more games twice in his seven-year career.

They still have former outfielder MVP Bryce Harper and one of the best young players in baseball in second baseman Trea Turner, who hit 13 home runs and 40 RBIs in 73 games last season, to provide offense for a starting pitching rotation that includes Max Scherzer, Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark and Joe Ross.

A.L. West Division predicted winner: Houston Astros

This will be the toughest division in baseball to win, as it has four teams who could end up winning between the Houston Astros, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels.

The Angels are a few pitchers away from contending, especially with having to face heavy lineups against the Astros and Rangers 18 times each throughout the year.

With that being said, the Mariners are hoping to have a bounce back season from starting pitcher Felix “The King” Hernandez in order to compete, and the Rangers have too many question marks in their starting rotation as well.

The Astros have arguably the best middle infield in baseball between shortstop Carlos Correa and second baseman Jose Altuve, as well as outfielder George Springer and Alex Bregman, up-and-coming third base prospect.

Their pitching may struggle a bit, but like the Cubs, they have the depth to trade for pitching before the July 31 deadline if necessary.

A.L. Central Division predicted winner: Cleveland Indians

This is the weakest division in baseball, which is interesting as it was the strongest division two seasons ago.

That’s how quickly the landscape can change in baseball.

The White Sox have already given up hopes for competing until the 2017-18 season, and the Detroit Tigers have too many big name contracts at the tail end of their careers to compete with the young, exciting and stronger, reigning A.L. Champs in the Cleveland Indians.

The Kansas City Royals are on the decline, and the Minnesota Twins are seemingly in a never-ending drought, although they have the talent with Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton to possibly make some noise in a lousy Central division.

The Indians will win the Central again this season by the widest margin of any division in baseball.

A.L. East Division predicted winner: Boston Red Sox

A.L. East is a crap shoot.

The Toronto Blue Jays lost their first baseman Edwin Encarnacion to the Indians but were able to resign aging outfielder Jose Bautista.

The New York Yankees threw $100 million at relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman to bolster their bullpen, but they are still a year away from competing.

The Baltimore Orioles are a very dangerous team if their core of third baseman Manny Machado, first baseman Chris Davis and outfielder Adam Jones can remain healthy and dominant, but the best team in the division, and who will win the East, is the Boston Red Sox.

When they traded Yoan Moancada, third baseman and top MLB prospect, and others to the Chicago White Sox for starting pitcher Chris Sale they boosted their rotation.

Their rotation now has Sale, Price, who may begin the season on the disabled list, and Porcello to go along with 2016 trade deadline acquistion starting pitcher Drew Pomeranz and up-and-comer Eduardo Rodriguez to boast the best starting rotation in baseball. They also have one of the most potent offenses with the likes of outfielder Mookie Betts, shortstop Xander Boaegarts, Andrew Benitendi, outfielder and No. 2 overall prospect, outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. and veteran second baseman Dustin Pedroia.

They hope to have a bounce back year from third baseman Pablo Sandoval who lost 50 pounds this offseason and has hit .351 with four home runs and 19 RBIs this spring as of March 29.

Wild Card

N.L. winners: Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks

Both wild card teams will come from the same division, the N.L. West. As previously stated, the division winner will be the Giants, but it will be a close race throughout the year as the Dodgers will be on their tail all season. The Dodgers, with the help of Kershaw and shortstop phenom Corey Seager, will hold the first wild card spot and host the wild card game in October. The surprise of all of baseball this season will be the resurgence of the Diamondbacks. They were predicted to do well last season before spring training injuries and pitching setbacks derailed the team’s season before it even began. Look for Greinke to have a bounce back season and for outfielder A.J. Pollock to return as one of the best players in the MLB after being injured all of last season. First baseman Paul Goldschmidt is a possible MVP candidate as well, which is why they will win the second wild card spot and go to their division rival Dodgers to face off in the one-game wild card playoff game in October.

A.L. winners: Texas Rangers and Baltimore Orioles

It is not as easy to predict as there are a handful of teams who could emerge as wild card contenders.

The Tigers, Mariners, Rangers, Blue Jays, Yankees and Orioles all have a legitimate shot at winning a wild card spot.

The Tigers are the most difficult team to forecast in this slew of teams as they are aging, but also have a lot of playoff experience and, if first baseman Miguel Cabrera is able to remain healthy, have one of the most potent offenses in baseball. They just don’t have the pitching needed to remain in the hunt and will fall out of the race by mid-August. The first wild card team will be the Rangers. They have the pitching and hitting to get the job done, but unfortunately for them, they play in a very difficult division. However, I still think they have what it takes to get to the first wild card spot. They will need Yu Darvish to remain healthy though, which is a major concern for them moving forward.

The second team that will be making the playoffs is from the A.L. East, and they are not named the Yankees. It will be the Orioles who will be traveling to Arlington, Texas to face the Rangers in the one-game playoff. They have the pitching with starters Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy, and also have the bats with Davis, outfielder Mark Trumbo, Machado and Jones to move them ahead of the Blue Jays, Yankees and Mariners for the final wild card spot.

World Series matchup: Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs

The phrase anything can happen once playoffs begin holds true in baseball every year. Pitching rotations tighten up and teams typically face the best three starting pitchers a team has to offer, which can make for a thrilling matchup throughout the playoffs.

The representative from the A.L. will be the Boston Red Sox. Their lineup is too potent and they have the best three-man rotation in baseball, barring any injuries. As for the N.L., the team with the target on their backs, the Cubs, will make a move at the trade deadline to bolster their rotation, and between the trio of Lester, Arrieta and Hendricks, will again represent the N.L. in the Series but will fall short of repeating as champions in another thrilling seven-game series as the Red Sox will take over as champions.