Wednesday, March 28, 2018

2018 MLB Season Predictions

It might not feel like spring yet, because in too many parts of the country there is still snow on the ground, but a new baseball season is finally here. After an offseason where there was more talk of upcoming labor doom than free agents, farm systems and a host of new managers for big clubs, finally, the world can focus on baseball itself. As it seems there as many teams trying to contend as there are trying to tank, it may seem like predictions now are somewhat redundant, but in even in this sport of clear haves and have nots, there are always some surprises. Whether this writer gets anywhere close to figuring out that riddle, who knows. His track record is not particularly stellar.

NL East:
1. Washington
2. Philadelphia
3. Atlanta
4. New York Mets
5. Miami

Washington's 2018 season is not defined by winning the NL East, which shouldn't be hard for a team as they are constructed. 2018 will be defined by whether they can, at long last, break their postseason jinx. It's common knowledge that this team as constructed has this year and no longer to do so before Bryce Harper can test free agency and other parts of the team face the sands of time, but this year, that in theory shouldn't be a problem. Philadelphia is no longer rebuilding as evidenced by the free agents they signed, but its their young players across the batting order that bring reason for optimism. They could be a sneaky wild card contender if all goes right. Atlanta might be World Series favorites in 2020, but that means 2018 is still focused on whether Ronald Acuna's hat is on straight. Flushing was a factory of sadness in 2017 with all of the Mets injuries, and it doesn't seem like Mickey Callaway can do much to change the inevitable. The Mets could be a playoff team if it all goes right, but so little has to go wrong for the house of cards to fall down.

And as for the Marlins... the less said, the better.

AL East:
1. New York Yankees
2. Boston
3. Toronto
4. Baltimore
5. Tampa Bay

Doesn't it feel like the Yankees are truly the Evil Empire again? Not just because they acquired Giancarlo Stanton for peanuts, but because their young players are also really dang good. If their starting pitching holds up, last year's overachievers, relatively speaking, are on course for banner 28. Their biggest threats come naturally from Boston, who had everything last year except power in their lineup and now have JD Martinez to fix that. The jockeying between these two teams will be fun to watch all year. Everyone else in the division feels as if they're in AAA. Toronto is the best of the rest, but they're caught in a horrible middle between rebuilding and quasi-contending, and they don't have an answer to that question yet. If you have a live arm and can throw a decent fastball, the Orioles may want your services for their "rotation" this season, and speaking of rotations, will Tampa's four man rotation create a new trend in data obsessed baseball, or is Kevin Cash, for lack of a better term, trying to make fetch happen?

NL Central:
1. Chicago Cubs
2. St. Louis Cardinals
3. Milwaukee Brewers
4. Pittsburgh Pirates
5. Cincinnati Reds

Wrigley will see a new re-made Cubs rotation this year which could end up being the best in baseball. They laser focused on their problems from 2017 and directly fixed them. That's not good for everyone else, including the Cardinals, who finally did something the world expected them to for a few years and made a big move for a middle of the bat star in Marcell Ozuna to add to a super deep lineup. It's also been a few years since the Cardinals did their usual overachieving in a smart, super St. Louis baseball type way, so watch out Cubs, it could be this year. Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich should add well to a potent Brewers lineup, but that pitching staff is... well, it's not what they're trotting out in Baltimore and San Francisco. They're a wild card contender if they get something out of that staff.

Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are both rebuilding, though both aren't entirely awful and could spring a few surprises if more than a few things go right. More than a few things is probably too many things for these teams at this time, though.

AL Central:
1. Cleveland
2. Minnesota
3. Chicago White Sox
4. Kansas City
5. Detroit

Whenever penciling in a division lineup makes you go "I didn't have to think to do that", something inevitably stupid happens that makes us all look like idiots. I'm fairly confident that won't happen with this year's AL Central (watch me eat my words in October). For the Indians, like the Nats, winning the division won't be the hard part, it's what will happen in October. They were surprisingly restrained this offseason in trying to get better, largely because this group has already proven itself twice. Whether that faith is rewarded in the playoffs remains to be seen. Minnesota's offseason has been varying shades of "welp", with Miguel Sano and Jorge Polanco being under the microscope for the wrong reasons, but the AL Wild Card race isn't exactly much of a race, so overcoming that plus some iffy pitching should be enough.

Watching the White Sox in April and May will be a chore. Watching the White Sox in August and September when the farm system starts putting its great products on the Southside will be worth the wait. Remember when the Royals were the most annoying team in baseball just a few years ago? Those days are long gone, even though they re-signed Mike Moustakas for a contract that is emblematic of baseball in 2018. Detroit's baseball team is going to look much like its hockey team in that its beginning a long, painful rebuild, emphasis on long and painful.

NL West:
1. Los Angeles
2. Colorado
3. San Francisco
4. Arizona
5. San Diego

Like last year, the NL West will be the division in the sport to watch. From one to four, everyone in the division can be competitive, a contender and really good. One team is greater among equals though, because the Dodgers are going to be their typical level of insane again. Justin Turner broke his hand, and no one's breaking a sweat. They've overcome injuries by replacing those lost with players like Chris Turner who become good seemingly out of nowhere. Their question is not winning the NL West, which is a fait accompli, but again, what happens in October. Last year, the Rockies played some truly anti-Rockies baseball to make the postseason for the first time since 2007 and this year should be a step forward, but that lineup is still a concern. San Francisco is trying one last kick at the can with the 2013 All-Star team, which is noble, but their top two pitchers are already injured and even though they did underachieve last season, there's only so much aging stars can do. It truly does feel like there's something missing in Arizona, even though they have Zack Greinke and Paul Goldschmidt, something JD Martinez sized. Eric Hosmer will make the Padres at least a team you can name a player on, but beyond that... San Diego is really beautiful in July and August.

AL West:
1. Houston
2. Anaheim
3. Oakland
4. Texas
5. Seattle

Man, those Astros are something, aren't they? And that was before they acquired Gerrit Cole to go along with a full season of a certain Verlander guy. That should help them overcome the bullpen problems that nearly cost them a championship last season. Fangraphs has them projected to be the best team in baseball by a sizeable margin, and that sorta seems inevitable. Repeating as World Champs is something no one has done since the Yankees from 1998 to 2000, but it sure seems that these Stros can do just that. Shohei Otani's spring was... ungood, but its safe to say he'll probably figure things out eventually, he's just too good not to. And there's this Mike Trout guy, he's good too. As much as there's something nagging at me to pick the Angels to be lower, they just won't be. They're actually good.

Oakland signed Jonathan Lucroy, which allows this writer who needs to pay more attention to teams not named the Mets to name someone on this team. But the A's often find a way to surprise in spite of everything working against them, but their lineup seems balanced and they have a farm system worth mentioning. Someone is going to be like Milwaukee or Minnesota of last year and contend out of nowhere, and if it's not the Phillies, it'll be their AL equivalent. In Texas,  Cole Hamels and Joey Gallo are good, and so is Rougned Odor, but boy... Tim Lincecum? Matt Moore? Yikes. And I'm not falling for it again, Mariners. I'm just not. I've gone down that road too many times. Prove me wrong.

NL Playoff Teams:
1. Washington
2. Los Angeles
3. Chicago
4. St. Louis
5. Milwaukee

AL Playoff Teams:
1. Houston
2. New York Yankees
3. Cleveland
4. Boston
5. Anaheim

Washington over St. Louis in 5 (hex broken!)
Los Angeles over Chicago in 4

Houston over Boston in 4
New York Yankees over in Cleveland in 5

Los Angeles over Washington in 7 (I had to)

New York Yankees over Houston in 7

2018 World Series:
New York Yankees over Los Angeles in 6

NL MVP: Bryce Harper
AL MVP: Carlos Correa
NL Cy Young: Noah Syndergaard (I need something, please)
AL Cy Young: Chris Sale
NL Rookie: Ronald Acuna
AL Rookie: Shohei Otani
NL Manager: Craig Counsell
AL Manager: Aaron Boone

Chalk, chalk and more chalk. I can't wait to be wrong in October as I usually am.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

What does "Most Valuable Player" mean, anyway?

The definition of "Most Valuable Player" in sports might seem made up and not matter, depending on who you talk to, but considering this award in its many forms is the highest individual honor that can be bestowed upon a player short of going to the Hall of Fame, the definition of this term certainly is paramount. "Most valuable" seems a simple enough two word phrase to parse out. But in those three words, almost anyone can find what they want in them to twist the definition of the phrase to suit an argument about who is either the best player or, by definition, most valuable.

As the debate for the NHL's Hart Trophy this season goes on, and cleaves a divide in the hockey world not seen since the analytics debate, the definiton of the Hart Trophy, the NHL's "most valuable player", wages on with no end in sight. Because the race is so wide open this season, and there are so many candidates based on whatever definition of the "player judged to be most valuable to his team" is to any individual, the debate of what that phrase means has almost superceded the debate over who should actually win the award. Everyone has an opinion, and if you've read the tagline of this blog, that means I actually do too (what a shocker).

Most of this civil war centers around Connor McDavid, the Oilers superstar who has been his usual fantastic self this season, with 90 points in 73 games while his Oilers sputter and stumble to another inevitable draft lottery win. He's behind Kucherov, MacKinnon and Malkin in the Art Ross race, and it's safe to say without McDavid's points, or the way he dominates puck possession with his line on the ice, the Oilers may well be challenging for the moniker of "worst team since the 04-05 lockout", which MacKinnon's Avs had last season locked up. Considering the Oilers historically bad special teams (though McDavid plays a major role in that), McDavid's season looks all that more impressive, particularly when you watch him continue to dominate when he's on the ice without looking at all incredulous or burnt out by playing on a glorified AHL team for the second time in three NHL seasons.

No player has won the Hart when missing the playoffs since 1987-88 when Mario Lemieux lapped the league in winning the scoring race but his Pens missed the postseason by a point. McDavid is going to get nowhere close to that, but with a literal definition of the "most valuable" phrase, McDavid must be considered, right? Certainly. But with so many other potential contenders in this wide open field, with many of them potentially having that Lemieux type season, it seems that McDavid's candidacy has thrown chaos into what normally is a sane debate.

Nathan MacKinnon and Taylor Hall essentially have the same argument for their Hart candidacy: take an incredibly awful team, dominate when on the ice, lead the team in scoring and take moribund teams to playoff contention. MacKinnon's numbers are gaudier with his 91 points as of this writing, and his incredible form recently to take the Avs to almost playoff locks. But Hall is playing on a team with demonstrably less talent, and he's had to do more of the heavy lifting. Both Colorado and New Jersey are not very good puck possession teams at even strength, but with those superstars on the ice, they are at least better. Knowing who votes on the Hart, the PWHA, the player whose team makes the postseason probably ends up taking the lead in the horse race, though what happens if both, or neither, make the playoffs, which is still possible on March 22nd?

Then you have the superstars on loaded teams, like Kucherov and Malkin, who have been absolutely dynamite, but have the benefit of playing on really good teams already, which normally wouldn't matter, however in this weird Hart race, it might matter more than ever this year. Malkin has been uber good, but the Pens seemingly don't miss much when he's off the ice because of that Crosby fellow, and their struggles might be down more to their d-zone and goaltending than anything Malkin et al can't outscore. Tampa is much the same way, so Kucherov's hot start has faded from mind a little.

There are players like Patrice Bergeron who were crazy dominant but injuries derailed part of their season, likely taking them out of the race (which is silly to me because Bergeron would easily be in the conversation without the injury, though his candidacy is much like Malkin and Kucherov's). There are players like Anze Kopitar, who are clearly better than the rest of his team, but the disparity isn't quite the same as it is with MacKinnon and Hall, which also contributes to the idea that he may win the Selke as a "consolation prize". That could hold too for Aleksander Barkov, who is a huge reason why the Panthers have the second best record in hockey since the All-Star break, but he falls into a muddled mesh of the Kopitar and MacKinnon/Hall situations where his team isn't great, but not nearly as bad without him as Hall/MacKinnon, and with Kopitar's ability to easily walk away with the Selke.

Before we forget, and the goaltender's union comes after me while we collectively spill bottles and bottles of internet ink, aren't goalies technically the most valuable players to their team every year? The adage, "show me a good goalie and I'll show you a good coach" certainly applies here, but has there been any goalie in this season that fits this description and the idea behind it enough to win the Hart, a la Jose Theodore in 2002? Probably not this year, though the Predators are championing Pekka Rinne's candidacy as they should, and Andrei Vasilevsky's Vezina waltz has found a few hiccups as of late. John Gibson in Anaheim probably deserves a nod for keeping his Ducks team that had more injuries than almost anyone together with his personal spit, gum and scotch tape performances that may well get them into the playoffs, but that's a hard argument to win even at this stage where we know more about how good goalies are and their importance to their teams seems heightened. Connor Hellebuyck deserves at least a nod here, because he's helped backstop a Jets team that obviously needed a save into being one of the best in the league, but with his team, that's another hard argument to parse out.

With all of that said, this "race" is a dumpster fire, even as the entire world of hockey swallows itself debating the definition of the Hart Trophy instead of actually debating who should win the award. A convincing argument could be made for up to maybe 10 players if you wanted to, and most of the hockey world has basically tried to do that already. In other sports, the MVP often goes to the most outstanding player, and in some sports, this award is simply termed "player of the year", which cleans up some of this nonsensical debate to begin with.

Putting all of that and more into a blender, if I had a vote for the Hart trophy this year, this is where I'd probably end up:

Nathan MacKinnon would probably be my number one. His season is every bit as amazing as Connor McDavid's, and while he's doing much the same thing that Taylor Hall is doing in New Jersey, he is taking a worse team in terms of play and elevating them to dominant when he's on the ice. He's also clearly elevating other players too, such as Mikko Rantanen, which is something Taylor Hall and even McDavid have not been able to, even in their spectacular seasons. Hall would be second because of this, and McDavid would be third. Connor McDavid is the best player in hockey, and should not be punished for Peter Chiarelli's sins, but what Hall and MacKinnon are doing is what McDavid in an ideal world should be doing, but because luck and other factors, he's just not able to.

This decision more comes down to rewarding a season that deserves to stand out in hockey history as much as acknowledging the obvious with McDavid. He won the Hart last year with a crazy good season, and will win the award many, many more times in the future. MacKinnon and Hall may not have that luxury. For the record, spots four and five would go to Evgeni Malkin and Anze Kopitar on my imaginary ballot.

The 2017-18 Hart race is the most crowded, confusing and crazy race for this award in years, and this is the way that one big hockey fan and journalist attempts to parse it out. That's what we're all trying to do in the end, using our own prisms and viewfinders to twist this season to our notions of hockey and impressive performances.

Maybe when the NHL had six teams and everyone made the playoffs awarding the Hart trophy was easier, but in a league filled with parity and with new ways of viewing the sport, figuring out who should win hockey's most prodigious award has become a debate that goes beyond hockey itself and more comes about how the sport is viewed from individual pairs of eyeballs.

But no one ever said judging someone's "value" was ever going to be easy.

Friday, March 2, 2018

2018 MLS Season Predictions

In my traditional cheap way of getting content onto this website without exuding much effort, it's time for some 2018 MLS predictions as the season starts this weekend. I'm excited, and a few others are, so where do I think all of these teams are going to slot in during the 2018 season?

Eastern Conference:
1. Toronto FC
3. Atlanta United
4. New York Red Bulls
5. Orlando City
6. Columbus Crew
7. Chicago Fire
8. Philadelphia Union
9. New England Revolution
10. DC United
11. Montreal Impact

Comments: Toronto FC is, and has been, the class of MLS for a few seasons now, and there's no reason to think they won't be again with the adjustments that they've made. They may not win the Supporters Shield again because of CCL focus, but they are the best team in the league and one of the biggest favorites for MLS Cup in recent memory.

NYCFC and Atlanta United both have the ability to challenge TFC atop the East, but both have some notable flaws, being NYCFC's overreliance on David Villa, and ATLU's problems deep in midfield. Both won't have trouble scoring goals, but there are a few notable flaws which may keep them from upsetting the Reds. The Red Bulls have made quality adjustments this offseason and look as if they may have just turned the corner, and Orlando City's huge offseason makeover and desperation to finally make the playoffs will get them in at long last. Columbus, who were inches away from MLS Cup last season, have uncertainty about where they'll be playing in the future over their heads, as well as dealing Meram and Kamara away, leaving them with some big holes, but their style will be good enough to make the postseason.

Western Conference:
1. Seattle Sounders
2. Real Salt Lake
3. Portland Timbers
4. San Jose Earthquakes
5. LA Galaxy
6. Sporting Kansas City
7. Houston Dynamo
8. FC Dallas
9. Vancouver Whitecaps
10. LAFC
11. Colorado Rapids
12. Minnesota United

Comments: While the Sounders are older and lacking Jordan Morris, some CCL evidence shows that they're going to be a-OK, at least barring any other major injuries. They're a favorite in the West, but not the favorite. RSL was the best team in MLS from June on, and their attack has some great potential. They look to make a huge jump this year, as do the LA Galaxy, whose own roster makeover was notable in major ways, and Sigi Schmid has the track record of making teams like this work. Portland has a new manager and a much younger roster, but there are questions about how they play and why Caleb Porter left, leaving the defending regular season champs from the West last year in a little hole.

San Jose will be sneaky good this year and play good soccer, and as the team is far more balanced now, they are a dark horse Cup contender. And Sporting Kansas City with their physicality and defensive posture should have enough to make the postseason again, if just barely, because they always run out of steam by August. This means both Vancouver and Houston will fall out from last year's six teams out West, and FC Dallas, who have fallen off a cliff in the last nine months, may not be able to climb out either. Notably, LAFC will have a season more akin to Minnesota United rather than Atlanta United in year one.

East Champ: Toronto FC
West Champ: Real Salt Lake
MLS Cup 2018 Winner: Toronto FC
Supporters Shield: NYCFC
Open Cup: New York Red Bulls
Golden Boot: David Villa
MVP: Miguel Almiron
Defender OTY: Justen Glad
Goalkeeper OTY: Nick Rimando
Coach OTY: Patrick Vieira
Rookie: Tomas Hilliard-Arce (LA Galaxy)
Newcomer: Carlos Vela