First look at MLB with Jon Butler

Talking fantasy baseball and what to watch for in each division

Jon Butler, from Six Man Rotation, joins me to go through each division in baseball and talk about what we can’t wait to watch. We  also talk about the appeal of fantasy baseball, the elite teams we see dominating and the interesting middle ground between contending and tanking that many teams will be dealing with. We end on some predictions, but are most excited for baseball season just to be here. Enjoy!

The Minnesota Twins are surprising everyone

They have the pieces to keep it up

The Minnesota Twins will cap off a stunning regular season when they clinch the playoffs this week. As many waited for them to fade, they have gone from last year’s league-worst record to a wildcard spot. I have picked against them throughout the wildcard homestretch, but they have stayed comfortably in position as the second wildcard and are destined for Yankee Stadium and the American League Wildcard game. For many, that will be the first time they have seen the Twins play this season.

Baseball’s season is notoriously long. Its a 162-game slog where moments struggle to break through until late in the season and the post-season. It’s hard for any Cinderella Story to really jump out when there are more games than characters in a tweet. This is especially true when the slipper is in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Yet, the Twin Cities have seen a team do what very few have done before. They have gone from 59-103 to a wildcard spot and are only the 13th team to go from 100 losses to a winning record. FiveThrityEight had them with just a 7% chance to make the playoffs before the season and virtually no one saw them coming. That may include the Twins, who were sellers at the trade deadline.

Paul Molitor’s squad is a unique combination of established stars overachieving and a young core coming into its own. Joe Mauer has been around long enough to see the Twins’ last run to the postseason and his uptick in performance has helped spur this team on. His batting average climbed from last year’s .261 to over .300 this season, and his adjusted OPS has climbed from 104 to 116. Brian Dozier is one of the only Twins who was better last year, but a slight decline from his 42 home run season still has him leading the team in dingers, while being second in adjusted OPS. Then there is Ervin Santana. He pitched well last season (he actually had a lower ERA and FIP last year), but maintaining that another season while the team has improved in the lineup and behind him on the mound, has led to an ace-caliber W-L record for him. The Twins’ established players have done enough to allow a young core to lift them to the postseason.

That young core is headlined in the lineup by Byron Buxton, Jorge Polanco and Eddie Rosario. All aged 25 or younger, each of these players has a WAR greater than 1 and Buxton leads the team at 5.1. Buxton’s bat has not been as hot as the Twins would like, but the 2012 second overall pick is far and away the team’s best fielder and gives them an asset in center field that few can match. He has also stolen 23 bases in a row without being caught. Meanwhile, Polanco and Rosario are near the top of the team in Offensive WAR and help give the Twins a lineup that can be dangerous 1-9.

On the mound, the youth revolution is led by 23-year old Jose Berrios. He leads the rotation in FIP and averages almost a strikeout per inning. He has been so impressive, there are some calls for Berrios to get the start against the Yankees.That will probably be Santana, but Berrios could be the Twins top pitching weapon if they can get to the ALDS.

Meanwhile, the bullpen is another case of youth and experience combining to elevate the Twins. Veteran closer Brandon Kintzler picked up 28 saves before going to the Nationals in a deadline deal and paving the way for youth to step up in the pen. While 37 year old Matt Belise has gotten the bulk of save opportunities since Kintzler’s departure, a young three-headed monster is emerging. Taylor Rogers, Alan Busenitz and Trevor Hildenberger are maturing when needed most. All three are just 26 and give the Twins different strengths. Rogers is deadly as a lefty specialist and has been called on more than any reliever in Molitor’s pen. Busenitz is emerging as a setup man late in the season with a sub-1.5 ERA. The best of the trio may be Hildenberger who has the team’s best FIP and averages 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings. The Twins should feel good about their relievers as the season wraps up and should feel great about next year’s bullpen.

The Twins have flown under the radar all season because there’s no dramatic explanation for this team’s success. They have just improved up and down the roster from one year to the next and that wide-scale incremental improvement has been just enough to earn a date with the Yankees. The Yankees are the Twins’ polar opposite–nothing they do flys under the radar. A perfect microcosm: the Home Run Derby is remembered for Aaron Judge’s fireworks display, but you know who took second? Miguel Sano of the Twins. In fact, Sano is currently injured, but may be a factor for the Twins postseason hopes if he can get healthy.

This team has the pieces to make a run. The starting pitching is good, the lineup is deep and the bullpen has multiple weapons. They even have the presence of Bartolo Colon. They went 2-4 against New York in the regular season and 6-10 against their likely ALDS opponent–and division rivals–the Cleveland Indians. Few will believe in the Twins, but few have all season. The Twins will wrap up one shocking result this week and all attention will turn to their next opportunity: the October 3rd match-up with Aaron Judge and the Yankees.

I’m picking the Yankees.

MLB: State of the Race

3 weeks left for 3 key races

Cleveland’s 20*-game win streak is one of the more impressive feats in recent sports history–if not all time. They have dominated their September slate, while charging past the Astros for the best record in the American League. Some will argue it won’t matter if they flop in October, but this has been an enduring run regardless (Heck, they made a Brad Pitt movie about the last 20-game win streak).

While the Indians have stolen the show the last couple of weeks, there are still interesting races throughout the standings. Specifically, three races will define the closing stretch of 2017: home-field in the AL, the NL Central and the AL Wildcard. The NL wildcard is close, but the Brewers and Cardinals should be more focused on catching the Cubs (just 2 games ahead) than the Rockies (3 games ahead).

AL Home-field:
Houston has been the best team in the AL since April, but the Indians streak has given them a one-game lead in the loss column with less than 20 games left. The top spot in the league is crucial not just for the home-field advantage in a potential ALCS, but the top seed will face a wildcard team, while the second spot must play Boston and Chris Sale. So the Indians have every incentive to keep winning, while Houston will need to pick up the pace and hope Cleveland cools down a little bit.

Both teams face other playoff contenders down the stretch. Cleveland must face Kansas City, Minnesota and the Angels, while Houston has a daunting  10-game run against the Angels, Rangers and Red Sox to close the year. In fact, there’s a chance their four game closing series at Fenway will roll right into an ALDS showdown.

Prediction: Indians streak to a comfortable top spot.

Weekend series to watch: Royals @ Indians. Cleveland could be going for MLB record win-streak against a wildcard-contending division rival.

NL Central
The Cubs were swept by the Brewers over the weekend allowing their division lead over Milwaukee and St. Louis to slip to just 2 games. The Cubs have 11 games combined against the Cardinals and Brewers remaining, while St. Louis and Milwaukee close the season with a 3 game series in Busch Stadium. This race will be decided in the eight-consecutive road games the Cubs have from September 21-28. If they can split road series with the Brewers and Cardinals in that stretch, they should hold on to their post season spot.

Prediction: Cubs, but its very close.

Weekend series to watch: Cardinals @ Cubs. If St. Louis wins this series in Wrigley it will get very scary in Chicago.

AL Wildcard
The Yankees are all but in, with a 5 game cushion between them and the third place team. Minnesota has carved out a two-game lead for the second spot, but six teams are still within five games. Yet, if any teams  catch the Twins, it likely would be the Angels, Royals or Rangers.

Angels: They just started a 13-game run where they face either the Astros, Rangers or Indians–that’s a tough draw right now. All but three of those games are at home, but it will still be a tough ask to get through that stretch with more than six wins. Just playing .500 baseball probably won’t get the job done.

Royals: After their upcoming series with Cleveland, they won’t play another team above .500 until their closing series against a Diamondbacks team that should have its playoff standing sewn up. They lost the season series 11-8 against the Twins, which may end up costing them.

Rangers: Texas has Oakland on its schedule for seven games (including the final four), which should help them close the gap. If they can go above .500 in their upcoming nine-game West coast trip, I like their chances.

Twins: The team they are all chasing is looking to stretch its surprising run into October. They have three games each with the Yankees and Indians, but if they can take care of business in their seven remaining games against Detroit they will be hard to catch.

Prediction: This one might take 163 games, but the Royals steal the final playoff spot from the Twins.

Weekend series to watch: Rangers @ Angels. This series will be a major factor in which AL West team can catch the Twins.


*All stats and records correct as of 11a.m. 9/13


MLB: State of the Race

Setting the stage for the hunt for October

With the calendar turning to September, baseball begins to heat up (In a real bummer for the MLB, football also starts…). The division and wildcard races begin to crystallize in ways the casual fan can grab hold of and the excitement of each game, inning and pitch begins to build to October’s crescendo.

The excitement will largely come from the wildcard race as only two divisions are within five games. In the AL, The Indians have put together a win streak that has effectively wrapped up the Central, while the Astros have cruised their way to a West title (the Justin Verlander acquisition is just gravy. In the NL, the Dodgers have run rampant out West and the Nationals have been dominant in the East. If you strain your eyes a little bit, you can see drama in the AL East and the NL Central. The Red Sox have a 4.5 game lead on the Yankees and the two don’t meet after the first weekend of September. The Brewers have hung tough after relinquishing their surprising division lead to the Cubs, but will need to dominate the teams’ seven meetings in September to have a realistic chance of catching the reigning champs.

For the true races, turn your eyes to the wildcards. Continue reading “MLB: State of the Race”