Expect more of the same in 2018. According to FanGraphs’ projections, the Indians, Astros and Dodgers are expected to win their respective divisions by at least 11 games, and the Nationals and Cubs are expected to win by seven games each. That leaves the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry to take center stage again in the AL East, where the Bronx Bombers are estimated to hold a two-game edge over Boston, making that and the wild-card races the most likely places for late-season drama.
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The Red Sox got themselves back in the divisional chase after signing designated hitter J.D. Martinez to a five-year, $110 million deal in February. Martinez is expected to hit .287 with 39 home runs in 2018 and produce 3.4 wins above replacement, making him the second-most valuable hitter on the team after outfielder/leadoff hitter Mookie Betts (5.6 fWAR). Right with Martinez are shortstop Xander Bogaerts (3.4 fWAR) and outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. (3.2 fWAR), giving Boston a formidable presence should it use that combination at the top of the order. That group could go toe-to-toe with the Yankees, who boast both leagues’ leading home run hitters from 2017: Giancarlo Stanton, the reigning National League MVP, and Aaron Judge, last season’s AL rookie of the year.
Both teams also feature pitching depth. Boston’s ace, Chris Sale, struck out 308 batters in 214 1/3 innings, making him one of 10 AL pitchers to reach 300 strikeouts in a season and the first to do it since Pedro Martinez in 1999. Joining the 2017 Cy Young runner-up among the Red Sox starters will be David Price, Rick Porcello, Eduardo Rodriguez, Steven Wright and Drew Pomeranz, a group projected to be a part of the eighth-best pitching staff in 2018.
The Yankees will rely on Luis Severino, the third-place finisher in Cy Young voting last season, in addition to CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka, Sonny Gray and Jordan Montgomery. That group, along with flamethrower Aroldis Chapman and setup man extraordinaire Dellin Betances, gives the Yankees the projected second-best pitching staff in the majors, behind the defending champion Astros.
The loser of the AL East battle will likely be the first of two wild-card teams, and the final AL playoff spot will go to the winner of a likely five-team battle among the Toronto Blue Jays (86 projected wins), Los Angeles Angels (84), Twins (82), Seattle Mariners (80) and Oakland Athletics (80).
The Angels are the best hitting club of that group. Led by two-time MVP Mike Trout, the Angels have six batters expected to produce at least 2.5 wins above replacement in 2018, tying them with the Red Sox. Trout is expected to be worth a league-leading 8.2 wins above replacement in 2018, hitting .299 with 39 home runs and a 1.027 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
The best pitching staff among AL wild-card hopefuls belongs to the Blue Jays. Manager John Gibbons named J.A. Happ the team’s Opening Day starter, and Happ will be followed by Aaron Sanchez, Marco Estrada, Marcus Stroman and Jaime Garcia. Stroman would have likely been on the mound for Opening Day if not for some shoulder inflammation during spring training. The 26-year-old right-hander struck out nearly 20 percent of the batters he faced in 2017 and employs a virtually unhittable slider, which held opposing hitters to a .188 average with 97 strikeouts in 218 at-bats ending on the pitch. His change-up (.167 average against) and curve (.115) were also very effective.
Over in the NL, look for the St. Louis Cardinals to nab the first wild-card spot (86 projected wins) with the New York Mets (82), San Francisco Giants (81), Arizona Diamondbacks (81), Colorado Rockies (79) and Milwaukee Brewers (78) possibly needing all 162 games to sort it out for the second spot.
The Mets have the second-highest projected wins above replacement among those contenders and, if their starting rotation can stay healthy, they should be a lock for the postseason. Their projected rotation on Opening Day includes Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey and Steven Matz, with Zack Wheeler, recently optioned to Class AAA Las Vegas, likely the fifth starter.
Syndergaard was sidelined early in 2017 with a partially torn lat muscle, limiting him to just 30 1/3 innings all season. When healthy, the 6-foot-6 right-hander is a bona fide ace, featuring five pitches in his repertoire — two fastballs to go with a change-up, slider and curveball — each capable of ending an at-bat with a strikeout. Syndergaard has struck out more than one of every four batters faced (28.4 percent) at the major league level. DeGrom is not far behind with a 26.6 percent strikeout rate, giving the Mets a 1-2 punch at the start of the rotation that could be the envy of the league.
“They have such a domination presence and potential if they’re healthy. It’s not fair to expect they could do that every single time,” Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz told the Associated Press. “But you’re talking about the greatest freak that we’ve ever seen in Syndergaard, and certainly deGrom has become the guy that everybody will see over time become the consistent pitcher with stuff.”