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Oct. 7, 2017 - Source: Al Bello/Getty Images North America

Brett Borzelli

Predicting the AL Playoff Picture 2018

Baseball fever is in the air. The Hot Stove and spring training are winding down, with Opening Day only a week away. Brett Borzelli offers his pre-season playoff predictions for the Junior Circuit in 2018.

It happens every year. Over a thousand players report to spring training, hoping to be on the team that claims the ultimate prize: the World Series championship.

To have a shot at the title, teams must first reach the playoffs. Some look great on paper at the beginning of the season, only to disappoint. Other clubs make unexpected runs to postseason glory.

A lot can occur over the course of a 162-game schedule that stretches out over six months. Players will emerge to have great rookie campaigns. Others will experience breakouts, bounce-backs, and career years. On the downside, there will be injuries and sub-par performances.

You can’t predict baseball, but here are the American League teams that look best on paper right now to make the postseason in 2018.

AL East:   New York Yankees

The Yankees turned a rebuilding year into an unexpected run that took them to within one win of the World Series in 2017. They did it with an explosive offense and good pitching.

The Bronx Bombers led the majors with 241 home runs — only 15 clubs in baseball history have hit more in a season. They also led the league in walks, finished second in runs scored, third in on-base percentage and OPS, and fourth in slugging average. The Yankees led the AL East in each of those categories.

New York also had one of the top-performing starting rotations in the league. CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka, Sonny Gray, Jordan Montgomery, and Luis Severino combined for 14.6 WAR. The latter finishing third in the Cy Young Award voting. That group remains intact for 2018.

In addition, the Yankees might possess the greatest bullpen ever assembled. Overall, New York’s pitching staff posted the second-best rate stats in the AL behind Cleveland.

Aaron Judge produced a debut campaign for the ages, winning Rookie of the Year honors unanimously. Gary Sanchez followed his own record-setting rookie effort by belting 33 home runs, a new single-season franchise record for a catcher. Shortstop Didi Gregorius also set a franchise record at his position by hitting 25 homers.

That overpowering offense will be even better this year. After coming up short in their quest to reach the Fall Classic, the Yankees pulled off the biggest coup of the winter when they snatched NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton (7.6 WAR) from the tanking Marlins. Greg Bird, a player who General Manager Brian Cashman once referred to as the best hitter in the organization, expects to finally be healthy this season and projects to hit 34 home runs.

Last season, the Bombers had the second-best run differential (+198) in the major leagues. With the addition of Stanton and a healthy Bird, they could potentially put up historic numbers in 2018. The Yankees might even break the Mariners’ single-season home run mark of 264. Barring something unexpected, the Yankees should be the envy of the AL East this year.

AL Central:   Cleveland Indians

After reaching the World Series in 2016, the Indians hoped to take the next step the following year by winning it all. Unfortunately, they ran into the Yankees’ buzzsaw in the Division Series, losing in five after being up two games to none. That disappointment does not diminish Cleveland’s fantastic year, though. They set an all-time record by winning 22 consecutive games.

Cleveland boasted the Junior Circuit’s top-performing pitching staff, which posted a 2.89 ERA and 1.14 WHIP. The offense, meanwhile, was right up there with Houston and New York among the most dominant in the league. The Indians’ +254 run differential was the best in MLB by far.

Led by defending Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, that dangerous Indians team returns on a mission. They signed Yonder Alonso (28 home runs, 1.9 WAR) to replace the departed Carlos Santana (23 home runs, 3.4 WAR). Other than that, the roster of the team that won a league-leading 102 games remains largely unchanged.

The Indians won the AL Central by 17 games last year, and they should run away with the division again in 2018. With their depth, balance, and strength in all phases of the game, the Indians will also be among the top contenders to win the World Series.

AL West:   Houston Astros

The Houston Astros spent nearly the entire 2017 baseball season residing atop the AL West. They took the division lead for good on April 14th and never looked back, going on to win by 21 games. The Astros were also consistent, posting winning records in every month except August. They finished strong, winning 21 of their final 29 games to clinch the AL’s number-two playoff seed.

Houston was certainly good enough to claim the mantle as the league’s best team and would have if it had not been for Cleveland’s record-breaking winning streak that ended in mid-September. Regardless, the Astros breezed past Boston in the ALDS, won a thrilling seven-game League Championship Series against the relentless Yankees, and went on to beat Los Angeles in the Fall Classic to claim their first-ever title.

The defending World Series champions led the league in virtually every offensive category last season, while their pitching was tops in the division. The Astros return almost the same team that won it all.

There is one major difference between Opening Day this year and last: Justin Verlander. The Astros added the ace on August 31st, and he pitched the team promised land. Verlander posted a 5-0 record in September and went 5-1 in the postseason. The lone loss came when he gave up two runs to the Dodgers in Game 6 of the World Series.

Having Verlander in the rotation all year will be a gigantic boost to a team that already has an embarrassment of riches. Houston’s only real weak spot last season was the bullpen. The front office shored it up by signing Joe Smith and Hector Rondon this winter.

Led by defending MVP Jose Altuve, the Astros remain the favorites to repeat in the West — and as champs.

Wild Card:   Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim had a very productive offseason. It started with the signing of baseball’s prized free agent, Shohei Ohtani. The two-way player expects to slot into the Halos’ rotation and serve as designated hitter on days he doesn’t pitch. The team moved Future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols back to first base from DH to make room for Ohtani.

Justin Upton arrived on August 31st from the Tigers to aid in the Angels’ failed Wild Card pursuit. Upton produced 5.7 WAR in 2017, and the team signed him to a contract extension this winter.

Zack Cozart (4.9 WAR) signed a three-year contract to play third base, while Ian Kinsler arrived via trade from Detroit to man the keystone. Kinsler’s 2.1 WAR in 2017 was a career low, but he posted an average 5.7 WAR over the previous four campaigns.

An Opening Day lineup featuring Upton, Cozart, and Kinsler represents a major improvement over last year for the Angels. They already have two of baseball’s best players at their respective positions in Andrelton Simmons (7.1 WAR) and two-time MVP Award winner — and two-time runner-up — Mike Trout.

Injuries requiring Tommy John surgery decimated their pitching staff in recent years, but the Halos expect to have a healthy Garrett Richards, Matt Shoemaker, Tyler Skaggs, Andrew Heaney in the rotation. The bullpen may be lacking with the departures of Huston Street, Yusmeiro Petit, Bud Norris. But the Angels did add closer Jim Johnson via trade with Atlanta.

Los Angeles is arguably baseball’s most improved team. It may not be enough to derail a dynasty in Houston, but the AL West figures to be a much tighter race this year. The Halos should have no trouble grabbing a Wild Card spot.

Minnesota Twins

The surprising Twins won 85 games and held off a pack of rivals to secure the league’s second Wild Card berth. They look good to repeat.

Minnesota owes its success to a greatly improved lineup. The team led the AL in runs scored after the All-Star break last year. That’s extremely impressive, considering the offensive production of juggernauts like Cleveland, Houston, and New York.

The Twins added slugger Logan Morrison this winter. They also succeeded in improving a porous pitching staff by signing starters, Lance Lynn and Anibal Sanchez. They also added relievers Zach Duke, Addison Reed, and Fernando Rodney.

Ervin Santana continues to recover from his February finger surgery, but the club expects him back in late May. Erick Aybar steps in to take the place of suspended starting shortstop Jorge Polanco. He will be out 80 games for violating the Joint Drug Agreement.

Coming off a very productive offseason, the Twins are in a position to build on the success they had last year. With an increasing number of teams tanking, consider Minnesota a favorite to claim the second Wild Card berth.

Honorable Mention:   Boston Red Sox

Despite repeating as division champs, the Red Sox struggled mightily on offense last season. They finished 27th overall in home runs (last in the AL), tenth in runs scored (sixth in the AL), and 22nd in OPS (11th in the AL). They also finished 14th in the league in slugging average, fifth in on-base percentage, and ninth in batting average.

After barely edging out the Yankees to claim the East, the Sox suffered another disappointingly early playoff exit in the Division Series. Desiring a change, Boston hired Alex Cora to manage. Following a long courtship, the Red Sox also landed slugger J.D. Martinez (2.6 WAR) to be the centerpiece of their revamped lineup.

The Red Sox boast perennial Cy Young candidate Chris Sale at the top of their starting rotation. He has six straight top-six finishes in the voting and was runner-up last year. They also have former Cy Young winners David Price and Rick Porcello. That’s where the questions begin, though.

Porcello is coming off a dreadful 2017 campaign. Price, meanwhile, is looking to rebound from an injury that caused him to miss half of the season. Boston expected Drew Pomeranz, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Steven Wright to fill out the bottom of the rotation. But all three remain injured. Wright is also facing suspension over a domestic violence incident.

With a pitching staff in shambles and only a single improvement made to a weak batting order, the Red Sox appear ripe for having their run as division champs come to an end. If at least some of the questions surrounding their pitching staff resolve favorably, however, the Red Sox could compete for a Wild Card.

Main Photo: Oct. 7, 2017 – Source: Al Bello/Getty Images North America

Brett Borzelli writes about the New York Yankees on Pinstripe Alley and Baseknock MLB. He is a member of the IBWAA. You may peruse his Baseknock MLB articles by clicking here.

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