Baseball’s Most Valuable World Series Pick
With Spring Training moving forward, Opening Day for MLB remains only a few weeks away (March 28th). So many teams participated in this year’s wild offseason, full of surprising trades and record-breaking contracts. But which teams look to surprise this season and potentially dominate October? Who’s this year’s underdog?
One team stands alone, a team that surprised many last season, and disrupted the last year’s trade deadline, hauling in prized prospects. Although they didn’t get into last year’s playoffs, I see this team carrying their former success into this year and getting a chance to fight in October.
Pittsburgh Pirates (+10000)
Moreover, the Pirates consistently remain one of the most overlooked teams in the MLB. Being in the NL Central contributes to much of the doubt as they remain in one of the most competitive divisions.
With that note, let’s briefly delve into the other teams of the NL Central first.
The Reds made some noise during the offseason, perhaps the most noise among the NL Central. After finishing last for the fifth year in a row, the front office decided to spend and compete this year. The Reds sent RHP Homer Bailey and two prospects to the Dodgers for outfielders Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp, LHP Alex Wood and utility infielder Kyle Farmer. They also got Tanner Roark (Nationals) and Sonny Gray (Yankees). Most of these players have much to prove, especially among pitching after a consensus struggling 2018. Even as Joey Votto and Scooter Gennett get the much needed power hitting from Puig and Kemp, the Reds going from 67 wins to +90 wins and making into the wild card game seems to far-fetched. Look for the Reds to potentially be successful in 2020.
After murmurs of Bryce Harper potentially joining Bryant and Rizzo in Chicago went stagnant, the Cubs went quiet for the remainder of the offseason. They lost last year to the Rockies in the NL Wild Card Game. SS Addison Russell‘s suspension puts him out for 40 games. Other than that the Cubs’ roster eerily reflects last year. Their pitching keeps getting older and their batting lineup remains injury-prone. The Cubs needed a little more security and didn’t address the problem at all.
The Brewers was one win away from a World Series berth, but lost to the Dodgers in Game 7 of the NLDS. Led by Christian Yelich, who won NL MVP his first season with the team, and looks to repeat another satisfying season in his young, but consistently exceptional career. Over the offseason they got 3B Mike Moustakas and C Yasmani Grandal. RHP Jimmy Nelson also comes back after a shoulder injury sidelined him in 2018. With their solid pitching rotation and top-5 bullpens, Brewers look to repeat the success of last year.
I see the Cardinals claiming the NL Central title this year. Although they didn’t make it to the playoffs last year, they went 41-28 under Mike Shildt after firing Mike Matheny. The Cardinals acquired one of the best hitters of today in Paul Goldschmidt. Before even getting Goldschmidt they averaged 4.69 runs per game, more than any other NL Central team. Their young pitching played above-average last year and with some big changes (acquiring reliever Andrew Miller) to their bullpen, the Cardinals seem the most ready to go.
All these teams are ready to compete. And that will only help push teams living on the margins like Pittsburgh. It both helped them gain momentum and succeed last year, but their motivation eventually ran out and they came up empty. This year will be different.
After winning 82 games last season, the Pirates look only to improve off of solid performances last year, particularly from their revamped pitching.
RHP Chris Archer went from Tampa Bay to Pittsburgh in a move that they believed would help a slumping star and push the Pirates into the playoffs. But the former All-Star didn’t play too much better after getting traded to the Pirates. And they didn’t make the playoffs. After going 3-5 with a 4.31 ERA and 9.6 SO9, Archer went 3-3 4.30 ERA and 10.3 SO9. Even so, he improved toward the end of what many believed to be his worst year. Moreover, in his 7-year career, he won 51 games with a 3.73 ERA and went to two All-Star games.
RHP Jameson Tallion, a former 2nd overall pick in the 2010 draft, ranked fifth in NL WAR among pitchers last year. He also ranked 11th in ERA (3.20), 9th in wins (14), and 7th in K/BB (3.89). He shows ace-potential after completing two games last year, same as Cy Young winner Max Scherzer.
Another starter turning heads became RHP Trevor Williams. After a solid 2017 campaign, 24-year old Williams improved vastly. His 3.11 ERA ranked 7th in the NL last year and his WHIP (1.18) ranked 12th.
With these three at the top and RHP Joe Musgrove and RHP Jordan Lyles look to breakout at the bottom of the starting rotation. And potentially call up top-6 pitching prospect RHP Mitch Keller.
Pittsburgh’s bullpen played solid last year, with a 4.03 team ERA and holding opponents BA to under .242. They throw heat, righty reliever Keone Kela had a 2.93 ERA with the Pirates and closer LHP Felipe Vazquez saved 37 games with a 2.70 ERA. Both throw up to 100 mph and raked up a +10 SO/9.
The Pirates offense had an up-and-down year in 2018. As a team they hit well above league average in BA and kept their SO% low, but they couldn’t hit the ball deep or drive in runs consistently. All this starts with their young talent.
Josh Bell had an underwhelming sophomore season. After a short stint in the majors in 2016, he played full-time in the big leagues in 2017. He hit 26 homers with 90 RBIs, had a .255/.334/.456 slash line and finished 3rd in NL ROY. Although he improved with his ability to get on base (.357 OBS), his power took a huge dip, hitting only 12 home runs in 2018. The fundamentals are there, he just needs to seize the opportunity; he’s projected to bat clean-up again.
Young infielders Adam Frazier and Colin Moran played solid ball last year. Both averaged around .277 and hit more than 10 homers. But Frazier, in his limited role, hit .456 SLG. With an expanded role, Frazier could be a great leadoff.
Starling Marte is the Pirates most talent hitter with a career slash line of .286/.341/.443. He hit 20 HR and stole 30 bases last year. (His 162 game averages are 17 HR and 42 stolen bases during his 7 year career). His combination of speed and power becomes a dynamic weapon for the Pirates and led him to the All-Star game in 2016. I see him playing at peak form hitting behind Frazier and making it as a reserve to the All-Star game.
At the 3 spot in the lineup will be Corey Dickerson. He hit .300 last year marking the third time in his career. But he, like so many other Pirates, didn’t get too many HR (13) or RBIs (55). But he’s the key to the teams success and will be quietly one of the more impressive hitter this year, similar to his consistent hitting last year. He made the All-Star team with the Rays in 2017 and won the Golden Glove last year.
The Pirates also have 4 prospects in the Top 100 MLB Prospects. They may bring people up to contribute. If they start hot, they’ll be early buyers in the trade market as well.
No one thought the Pirates were legitimate candidates to win the NL Central last year and the surprised many with their play, only to fall apart down the stretch. But now they know. And now they can improve.
The Oakland A‘s went from last in AL West with 75 wins in 2017 to winning 97 games and making it into the Wild Card game in 2018. The 2018 Tampa Rays won 90 in the stacked AL East, echoing the potential of the Pirates in the loaded NL Central, even after trading away some key players, including their ace pitcher.
The Pirates have a lot of young talent returning to the team, and they were hungry last year. After missing the playoffs, I think they’ll be even hungrier this time around.
With everyone playing better in the NL Central (similar to last year, but even the Reds improved) I think the Pirates have a great chance of sneaking through the mess and into the playoffs.
At five digit odds, I’m willing to take the risk and put my money on the Pirates as the under dogs and my most valuable 2019 World Series pick.