The 2018 MLB season begins insanely early this year, with Opening Day coming up on Thursday, March 29. It’s the first time I can ever recall the full-scale opener (not counting isolated games played in Japan) coming before the Final Four. The result is that I feel a little behind the curve (no pun intended). But the good news is that Las Vegas is always on top of it. Here’s a primer on how the smart money sees the season unfolding:
*Four divisional races have been put to bed before the season even begins. Houston and Cleveland in the American League, along with Washington and the LA Dodgers in the National League are huge favorites to capture their division crowns.
*The AL East is seen as returning to the 1999-2007 era when you could throw out everyone but New York and Boston before the season began. At least now the race will have some consequences, with the loser being forced into a one-game wild-card showdown, something that didn’t exist the last time this rivalry really heated up.
*The liveliest race is expected in the NL Central. The Chicago Cubs are the favorite to win it for a third straight year, but the Cubbies are by no means an overwhelming favorite. St. Louis is expected to be in the race and Vegas seems to like Milwaukee’s aggressive offseason, projecting the Brewers to make some noise of their own.
*The Los Angeles Angels are the projected favorite for the second wild-card spot, based on their Over/Under of 85.5 wins on the year. This is likely due to the hype surrounding pitcher/hitter Shohei Ohtani, who will DH on Opening Day and then be the starting pitcher for the third game of the season. Minnesota, who took the second wild-card last year, is again expected to contend.
*Arizona might not be given any chance to catch the Dodgers in the NL West, but the Diamondbacks are still seen as a solid choice to at least get into that one-game showdown. Arizona is perceived as narrowly superior to Milwaukee in the race for the last wild-card spot. Colorado, which took that spot last season, is again expected to be in the mix.
Here’s my own thoughts on that projected landscape…
*I think the Mets are being left by the wayside a little too quickly. Their pitching has been a mess the last two seasons, but if the trio of Noah Syndergaard, Jacob de Grom and Matt Harvey can get humming, it’s easy to see Mets/Nats providing some real excitement in the NL East through the summer. New York’s Over/Under on wins is only 81.5. Betting the Mets to simply have an 82-80 winning season seems quite reasonable.
*The Indians and Dodgers seem a little vulnerable. Both carry the bad taste of crushing postseason losses at home. In both cases, reasonable questions can be raised about their depth of their pitching rotation. The Twins and Diamondbacks look like credible challengers to both. But I hesitate because of my regard for Terry Francona and Dave Roberts as managers. Francona has a long track record now, and Roberts managed to blow away a good NL West last year in spite of Clayton Kershaw missing a good chunk of time. I have no idea how Roberts did it with a rotation that looks thin, but this is a team that now gets the job done in tough situations.
*By rights, I should be excited for my first full baseball season as a New England resident. A Red Sox fan since 1996, I moved to the area late last September and promptly watched Boston nearly blow a division they had in control and then fold up in the playoffs. While I’m looking forward to watching NESN and trying to raise the fortune needed to afford a ticket to Fenway, I can’t help but shake bad feelings about this team. It deals mainly with the now-demonstrated inability of key players—Chris Sale & David Price—to perform in September and October. I think the Sox should meet regular season expectations and even win a third straight AL East crown. But the Yankee kids proved last year they could handle October pressure, so I’m keeping a lid on my expectations for postseason success.
*I really hope the Brewers can live up to expectations and in fact even go beyond. I’m originally from southeastern Wisconsin, and while I myself am not a Brewer fan, I know a lot of people that have been great fans for a long time without any big rewards to show for it. I’m concerned about Milwaukee’s ability to navigate the first half of the season before Jimmy Nelson gets back in the rotation.
So there you have it. Las Vegas tells us to expect a regular season that’s moderately exciting, and an October where the Astros and Dodgers rematch in the World Series. That demonstrates the innate caution of the Strip in jumping on new bandwagons too fast.
Personally, I’d lean the Yankees to get back to the Fall Classic, presuming they add another starting pitcher along the way. The biggest thing that could derail them is losing a division race to the regular season version of the Red Sox, which should be much tougher than the October version, and then failing to survive a one-game knockout. But if Aaron Boone puts the Pinstripes back into the final eight, by whatever means, I have a bad feeling they won’t be stopped this time around.