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The 2019 Favorites And Breakout Picks For The American League

Welcome to our two-part guide to the 2019 MLB season through the lens of our MLB prediction model. In each division, we’ll outline the key teams in the division race, discuss the incoming players who will make the biggest difference and classify the tanking teams you should ignore on principle. Here is our preview of the American League (click here for the National League):

How Elo is forecasting the AL East race

Avg. Simulated Season Chance to…
Team Elo Rating Wins Losses Run Diff. Make Playoffs Win Division Win World Series
Yankees 1569 97 65 +147 82% 47% 13%
Red Sox 1562 95 67 +131 76 39 9
Rays 1525 86 76 +46 42 12 3
Blue Jays 1482 75 87 -55 9 2 <1
Orioles 1421 60 102 -198 <1 <1 <1

Based on 100,000 simulations of the 2019 MLB season

Sources: Baseball prospectus, Fangraphs, Clay Davenport

The division race: The New York Yankees didn’t sign Manny Machado or Bryce Harper. But they didn’t need to: They have Aaron Hicks (4.8 wins above replacement1 last season) and young, burgeoning stars Gleyber Torres (2.4) and Miguel Andujar (2.5). While they will be without staff ace Luis Severino (5.1) for some time, our forecast likes them just a bit more than the defending World Series champion Red Sox. The Yankees’ position players set the single-season record for home runs last year and could threaten their own mark this year. And in a game increasingly decided by bullpens, the Yankees might have the best ever. The Boston Red Sox have the reigning AL MVP in Mookie Betts (10.6) and another MVP-caliber bat in J.D. Martinez (6.1), leading a lineup that could pass for an All-Star team. If David Price (3.4) picks up where he left off in the World Series (1.98 ERA in 13 innings) and returns to levels he pitched earlier in his career, he could give the Red Sox another dominant ace alongside annual Cy Young contender Chris Sale (6.5). Fellow starter Nathan Eovaldi (who had 1.9 WAR and his best season in the underlying skills) gives the Red Sox another high-ceiling arm. The Red Sox have had success getting more out of pitchers like Eovaldi, Joe Kelly and Matt Barnes, which gives reason to believe they can overcome the losses of Kelly and Craig Kimbrel to free agency. Not only do the Tampa Bay Rays have the top farm system in the American League, according to Baseball America, but they won 90 games a year ago with the second-youngest position player group (27.1 years) in the league and the youngest pitching staff (27.1). The Rays have quietly put together one of the more talented rosters in the game that includes reigning AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell (6.2) and underrated star Tommy Pham (3.7). The Rays are a postseason sleeper team.

The difference-makers: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. There’s nothing left for Vlad’s son to prove in the minor leagues. He hit .402 in Double-A last season and .381 across all levels. Most rate him as the game’s top prospect with elite bat-to-ball and power ability. The only thing that could slow him down is injury — and maybe the Blue Jays’ front office. He and fellow top 20 prospect Bo Bichette should be franchise cornerstones for an up-and-coming Blue Jays team. Once a highly touted prospect in Pittsburgh, Tyler Glasnow (0.8 WAR in 2018) came over to Tampa in the second half of last season in the Chris Archer deal. He’s always had command trouble but trimmed his walk rate in August while retaining his high strikeout rates. He has breakout potential if the Rays can help him optimize and harness his stuff. The Rays actually paid (gasp) for a talented free agent in Charlie Morton (3.2), who has an elite spin breaking ball and a high-velocity fastball. Morton, when healthy, has quietly emerged as a top-of-rotation talent. Top Rays pitching prospect Brent Honeywell, and his diverse pitch mix that includes a screwball, could be ready to help early in the season. New York landed the top arm available this winter in trading for James Paxton (3.3). Since his breakout 2017 season, Paxton ranks ranks sixth in the majors in strikeouts per nine innings (11.1)2 and 13th in wins above replacement per 200 innings (5.0). The Yankees also added elite reliever Adam Ottavino (2.3) — who actually began his dominant 2018 campaign in a Manhattan storefront — to an absolutely dominant bullpen that averaged 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings last season, a record.

Gone tanking: The Baltimore Orioles The Orioles could be historically poor, but take solace in this, Orioles fans: Your club would still probably win the International League.

How Elo is forecasting the AL Central race

Avg. Simulated Season Chance to…
Team Elo Rating Wins Losses Run Diff. Make Playoffs Win Division Win World Series
Indians 1553 95 67 +133 82% 73% 8%
Twins 1508 84 78 +26 36 20 2
White Sox 1457 71 91 -91 5 3 <1
Royals 1451 70 92 -103 4 2 <1
Tigers 1443 68 94 -119 4 2 <1

Based on 100,000 simulations of the 2019 MLB season

Sources: Baseball prospectus, Fangraphs, Clay Davenport

The division race: Because of an elite starting rotation, because Francisco Lindor (7.7 WAR) and Jose Ramirez (7.9) — if they can stay healthy — have become superstars by tapping into their pull-side power, because they reside in one of the weakest divisions ever … the Cleveland Indians are still heavy favorites in the AL Central despite one of the more disappointing offseasons in baseball. Only the Orioles and Reds spent less than the Indians’ $2.5 million in free agency. While the Indians can perhaps do nothing and still win the AL Central, they’ve been outclassed in the ALDS in each of the last two years — and the gap between the Indians and the Houston/New York/Boston super teams is perhaps growing. While the Indians are still slated to finish with the fifth-best record in baseball and 11 games ahead of the Twins in our projections, there are questions about their lineup after trading catcher Yan Gomes (2.5) and losing left fielder Michaely Brantley (3.5) to Houston in free agency. The Minnesota Twins are trying to close the gap with the Indians. Byron Buxton’s (-0.4) spring has offered hope that he could begin to tap into his offensive potential, and Eddie Rosario (3.5) is quietly emerging as a star. But third-year general manager Derek Falvey prides himself on developing pitchers, and that’s where the Twins are attempting to make up the most ground. The Twins’ starting pitchers ranked ninth last season in AL ERA (4.48) and fielding-independent pitching (4.54). (The top four AL teams in ERA and FIP all reached the postseason.)

The difference-makers: The Twins signed Michael Pineda in December 2017 to a two-year deal despite knowing that he would miss all of 2018 as he recovered from Tommy John surgery. They hoped the wait would be worth it to enjoy his bat-missing ability: He ranked seventh in swinging strike percentage in 2015-17. Martin Perez and his velocity spike and new cutter also looks like a find for the Twins, and the club signed free-agent Marwin Gonzalez (2.0) to a favorable deal. White Sox uber prospect Eloy Jimenez was the best bat in the minors last year not named Guerrero. He slashed .355/.399/.597 in Triple-A 55 games as a 21-year-old. The 6-foot-4, right-handed hitting outfielder will likely begin the season in the majors after agreeing to a seven-year contract last week, ensuring that the White Sox don’t suppress his service time. Jimenez was acquired from the north side in the Jose Quintana deal; the Chicago Cubs could regret the deal for years.

Gone tanking: The Kansas City Royals, Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox. While the White Sox’s collection of young talent might pay off down the road, they are unlikely to contend this season. The Royals have an even longer road ahead with no top 100 prospects, according to some analysts. The Tigers are also far from being relevant, but they hope they drafted a new ace and face of the franchise in Casey Mize, the No. 1 overall pick last June.

How Elo is forecasting the AL West race

Avg. Simulated Season Chance to…
Team Elo Rating Wins Losses Run Diff. Make Playoffs Win Division Win World Series
Astros 1577 98 64 +162 86% 74% 16%
Athletics 1518 83 79 +26 32 11 2
Angels 1506 80 82 -7 22 7 1
Mariners 1493 79 83 -23 18 6 <1
Rangers 1459 70 92 -103 3 <1 <1

Based on 100,000 simulations of the 2019 MLB season

Sources: Baseball prospectus, Fangraphs, Clay Davenport

The Houston Astros remain the model franchise in MLB entering 2019. They are on the cutting edge of player development and have built a club that won the 2017 World Series, won 103 games a year ago and project to win 98 games this season, according to our model, all while maintaining a farm system that has ranked fifth or better by Baseball America in three of the past four years. The Astros might be the best team in the game, and they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon: They’ve locked up Alex Bregman (7.2 WAR) to a long-term deal, they feature a young core of Carlos Correa (1.7) and Jose Altuve (5.0) in their primes, and they have more riches on the way in outfield prospect Kyle “Ted” Tucker. They’ve become masters of acquiring pitchers, often high-spin-rate arms, and getting more out of them than other teams, including Justin Verlander (6.5), Gerrit Cole (5.5) and Ryan Pressly (2.0). The Los Angeles Angels and Mike Trout (10.0) essentially agreed to a lifetime contract earlier in March. While Trout has never won a playoff game, the second act of the Trout era in Anaheim is looking more promising. The Angels’ farm system is improving, and Shohei Ohtani (3.9) gives the club a second legit superstar if and when he can pitch and hit again. There’s work to do, but the Angels might have the most enviable pair of players in the game. You may not have heard of Oakland A’s third baseman Matt Chapman (7.3), but the two-way star was sixth in WAR for all batters last season. The A’s had the fourth-most efficient offense in part because no team hit fewer ground balls. Getting the ball off the ground is the A’s latest hidden edge. The big question for the A’s is what kind of production they’ll get from a rotation that lacks dominant, ace-type arms. In their bullpen, they have one of the most impressive arms in baseball in Blake Treinen (3.9).

The difference-makers: Astros pitching prospect Josh James wasn’t even on prospect radars last spring, but by the end of the season, he had taken his 100-mph fastball and wipeout changeup to the majors. James is one reason that the Astros were probably comfortable in allowing starters Dallas Kuechel and Charlie Morton to depart. James will begin the year in the bullpen, but he could become an important part of the rotation. The Mariners might hasten their rebuild with the offseason signing of Yusei Kikuchi, one of the best pitchers in Japan over the past several seasons. Kikuchi has a swing-and-miss slider, and his fastball sits at 93 mph but can reach 98. The A’s acquired Jurickson Profar (2.5 WAR) from Texas, one of a number of lower-profile but potentially useful additions. Profar was once the top prospect in the game, but he has dealt with a number of injuries. Still, he’s been effective when on the field, posting a .793 on-base plus slugging last season.

Gone tanking: The Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers. Seattle GM Jerry Dipoto restocked a weak farm system with the trades of Paxton, Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz this offseason, but the Mariners have a long way to go to compete with the Astros. While the Rangers are exploring some innovative practices with Driveline Baseball, they have a team that will be challenged at the major league level and a system that lacks a prospect that projects to be a future difference-maker. It’s a long road from the bottom of the AL West to the top.

Footnotes

  1. According a mix of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs’ competing versions of the metric.

  2. Among pitchers who have thrown at least 150 innings.

Travis Sawchik is a sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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