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Sheehan: Second Verse, Same As The First

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(Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)

Birds gotta fly, bees gotta sting and ball writers gotta make predictions. Owing to a clause in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that squeezes in more off days, Opening Day is three days earlier than usual this season. So if any of these musings on the future are wrong, I blame the loss of those three critical days of preparation and research.

I mean, we’ve blamed everything else on the players’ union this winter . . .

The biggest thing we’ll see this year is something that hasn’t happened since 1978: Every division winner will repeat. It’s never happened in the six-division era, with the most repeat division champions being five (in 1999 and 2017). Five of the six divisions feature prohibitive favorites, all with at least a 78 percent chance to win according to Fangraphs. In the AL East, the Red Sox and Yankees are expected to battle to the end of the season for the title, with the loser hosting the AL Wild Card Game.

The Yankees soaked up a lot of attention this winter by trading for 59-homer man Giancarlo Stanton, giving the Yankees two of the four active players, along with Aaron Judge, to have 50-homer seasons. Throw in late signing Neil Walker and trade pickup Brandon Drury, as well as full seasons from 2017 trade additions Sonny Gray and David Robertson, and many people see the Yankees catching the Sox for the division title.

Me, I think this shorts the Red Sox, who added their own righty power bat in J.D. Martinez, and who started the winter with a better core of talent. The Red Sox won 93 games in a season in which their offense was a major disappointment, with David Ortiz retiring and none of the young homegrown hitters picking up the slack. The Red Sox were last in the AL in homers and 14th in slugging, staggering numbers for a team in Fenway Park. Look for Martinez to bolster the DH production and the group of Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Andrew Benintendi, and Jackie Bradley Jr. to make this a far more productive offense. The Red Sox will not just hold off the Yankees, they’ll win the AL East with room to spare.

With such stratification in the standings—seven great teams up top, and maybe 10 or 11 at the bottom focused on 2019 and beyond—it becomes hard to identify a surprise team. The Twins jumped from 59-103 in 2016 into the playoffs last year, and there’s no clear contender to make a similar leap this year. The two 90-loss teams from last year expected to contend are the Mets and Giants, but both are high-payroll, large-market regular contenders who owe their lost 2017 seasons to injuries.

If you’re looking for a rebuilding team to arrive a year early, consider the Phillies. They lost 96 games a year ago, then added Jake Arrieta and Carlos Santana to a team loaded with young talent at the major league level. The Phillies have two contenders for NL rookie of the year in J.P. Crawford and Scott Kingery, late-season breakout Rhys Hoskins in left field, and they will start seven players 28 and younger on most days. They also have the most interesting of a deep crop of new managers in Gabe Kapler, who possesses what could be a Joe Maddon starter kit.

It’s easier to find potential breakout players. I’m excited to see what Manuel Margot, Stephen Piscotty and Jameson Taillon do this year for teams likely to be far out of the races. The player I’m most focused on, though, is the aforementioned Red Sox shortstop. Bogaerts was on his way to a big year in 2017, hitting .308 with a .361 on-base percentage and 20 doubles, when he was hit on the right hand by a pitch on July 6. Bogaerts never went on the disabled list, but he wasn’t half the player after the injury, hitting .232 with just 18 extra-base hits. Look for him to be the same emerging star he was before the hand problem. Perhaps even better: Fangraphs’ Jeff Zimmerman reported that Bogaerts, a groundball hitter for much of his career, was lofting the ball more in the Grapefruit League. Bogaerts will be in the AL MVP discussion deep into the summer.

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We’ll all be watching to see what the baseballs are like this year, after a year of investigation by researchers and journalists largely concluded that they were livelier than they’d been in the past. Major League Baseball has steadfastly denied manipulating the baseballs, a claim that is less comforting than they might hope. The new balls, and the hitting strategies designed to take advantage of them, led to the most home runs in baseball history a year ago. I’ll peg that number to slip a bit this season, but it will still be a high-offense game heavily reliant on homers.

In the end, 2018 will look a lot like 2016, as the Cubs continue to parallel the Yankees dynasty of the 1990s. That team made the playoffs in 1995, won a World Series in ’96, flamed out in October ’97 and then won three Series in a row starting in 1998. This Cubs team won’t chase the 114 wins compiled by the ’98 Yankees, instead they will cruise to a 10-game cushion in the NL Central before riding the league’s best offense through October to the Cubs’ second championship in three years.

It seems like we’ve been talking about the likes of Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Baez for a while, but keep in mind that more than 90 percent of the Cubs’ plate appearances this year will be taken by players under the age of 30. The Cubs are just getting started.

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