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Mickey Moniak beginning to look like a worthy top draft pick

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Moniak was the top overall pick in the 2016 MLB Draft

During their recent half-decade plummet to the bottom of the National League standings, the Philadelphia Phillies found themselves picking at a high position in the annual MLB Amateur Draft on a regular basis.

The Phillies had such a horrendous season in 2015 that their 63-99 record proved to be the worst in all of Major League Baseball. That set the club up with the #1 overall pick of the 2016 MLB Draft.
This was going to be far from a slam-dunk selection. Sure, the draft has yielded some true impact players with that first overall pick. Since the turn of the century, that top pick has produced stars in Joe MauerDavid PriceStephen StrasburgBryce HarperGerrit Cole, and  Carlos Correa.
However, there have been as many misses as hits. Players selected #1 overall since the year 2000 also include Bryan Bullington (2002), Delmon Young (2003), Matt Bush (2004), Mark Appel (2013), and Brady Aiken (2014). Some were injury casualties. Some simply never developed as hoped.
Others made an impact, but it would be hard to say that they justified a first overall draft selection: Luke Hochevar (2006) and Tim Beckham (2008) fall into this category.
Even Justin Upton, taken first overall in 2005, has to be considered an overall disappointment when considering he was the top draft pick. Dansby Swanson, the top selection in the 2015 draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks, is just emerging this year as an impact player after being traded to the Atlanta Braves.
In June of 2016, Matt Klentak was overseeing his first draft as the general manager of the Phillies. Johnny Almaraz was the club’s head of amateur scouting at the time. When MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred stepped to the podium to announce the selection, he called the name of Mickey Moniak, an outfielder from La Costa Canyon High School in Carlsbad, California.
Collectively, we believe Mickey was the best player available in the draft,” said Almaraz at that time, per Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia. “He’s a true centerfielder with incredible offensive ability and the potential to be a perennial All-Star.”
Per Salisbury, a rival talent evaluator also delivered a glowing appraisal of Moniak: “He’s going to hit and hit for average. He’s a good centerfielder. He can run. The question is how many home runs will he hit? If he ends up getting stronger, he could be a corner bat that’s unbelievable. There’s no negative here. It’s a good pick.
Moniak knew that the pressure would be on him, and seemed ready to accept the responsibility. “I am honored by this and I’m excited to prove the Phillies right,” Moniak said in an interview with the MLB Network after the pick was announced.
After passing a physical exam with the team, Moniak inked a contract that paid him a $6.1 million signing bonus. Financially set, it was time to play baseball.
Almaraz doubled down on his assessment of Moniak’s abilities, per Todd Zolecki of MLB.com: “I think you’ll have a Gold Glove center fielder who will hit in the middle of the lineup and be a leader on the team,” Almaraz said.
As an 18-year-old, Moniak was assigned to the Phillies rookie-level team in the Gulf Coast League. He slashed .284/.340/.409 with 16 extra-base hits, 27 runs scored, and 10 stolen bases in 194 plate appearances across 46 games. It was a solid beginning to his professional career.
Moving up to Low-A Lakewood the following season, however, Moniak struggled mightily. He slashed just .236/.284/.341 in the summer of 2017 and frequently appeared to be over-matched, striking out in more than 20% of his plate appearances.
Still, the organization liked his maturity and believed he was up to another promotion for last season. It didn’t look that way early on, as things started out even more poorly with High-A Clearwater. Over his first 172 plate appearances across 43 games, Moniak slashed just .217/.233/.253, striking out in more than 25% of the time.
Then, something seemed to suddenly click. In his next four straight games, and five of his next six, Moniak produced a multiple-hit effort. He would slash .303/.346/.464 over his final 71 games and 293 plate appearances, with 30 extra-base hits and 41 RBIs. Moniak also cut down his strikeout rate to below the 20% mark over those final two and a half months.
With that performance his confidence grew, and Moniak moved up to Double-A Reading for this 2019 season. He turned just 21-years-old on May 13, and was playing so well that he was named to the Double-A All-Star team.
Unfortunately, a strained hamstring suffered while making a sliding catch in center field on June 30 has put Moniak on the minor league injured list. He will be in Richmond, Virginia for that Double-A All-Star Game on Wednesday night, but his ability to actually participate is questionable.
Moniak was slashing .266/.324/.437 with 32 extra-base hits, 42 runs scored, and nine stolen bases over 314 plate appearances in 75 games. In his last 13 games prior to the injury, he was hitting .318 with a .436 on-base percentage.
While Moniak had become a strikeout victim in 22% of his appearances this year, the now 6’2″, 185-pounder has quite obviously shown the ability to compete at the second-highest level of the minor leagues at more than three years younger than the average player age.
No, Mickey Moniak is still not demonstrating that he will be a difference-making impact player to the levels envisioned by the organization when he was drafted. But neither is he the bust that many were beginning to call him just one year ago.
I think it’s a lot of hard work in the offseason, but it has to do a lot with the past few years,” he said per Jackson Satz of The Philadelphia Inquirer. “The seasons I’ve had, the good, the bad, learning from everything that’s happened to me throughout my professional career so far. Ultimately, that’s going to work for me to become the best player that I can be.
Now, mission one is to recover from the hamstring and get back into action. The Phillies have advanced him in a patient, yet consistent manner. One minor league level at a time. Moniak has continued to develop, gotten bigger and stronger, and it is now finally possible to envision him wearing a Phillies uniform at Citizens Bank Park.
Fans should expect to see him finish the year with Reading, and then move on to Triple-A Lehigh Valley when next season opens. He is likely to spend most of the 2020 season continuing his development. At that point it will be all about performance and production.
It may not yet be time for Phillies fans to get excited about Mickey Moniak. But it is beginning to become possible to see him as a contributor at the big-league level within the next two years. And it remains possible that he could still become the impact player that Almanzar and others believed him to be.
NOTE: Special thanks to Cheryl Purcell for her picture of Moniak at Reading accompanying this piece, and RIP to a truly good boy, Jax: https://jack-jax.com/

2019 MLB preview and predictions

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Paul Goldschmidt powers up the Saint Louis Cardinals for 2019

 

With the 2019 Grapefruit and Cactus League schedules drawing to a close this week, all eyes are now squarely focused on Opening Day. All 30 teams in Major League Baseball will be playing in the regular season on Thursday.

How will superstars such as Bryce Harper with the Philadelphia Phillies, Manny Machado with the San Diego Padres, and Paul Goldschmidt with the Saint Louis Cardinals fare in their new homes? Which teams will become surprise contenders? Which major injuries will derail a team’s postseason hopes?
Each new MLB campaign comes with its own unique storylines. This year will be no different. Over the coming six months there will be excitement, drama, heartbreak, and controversy as each club plays out its 162-game schedule.
For years now I’ve been looking into my own personal crystal ball to make predictions for MLB’s division winners and individual award winners as well as my picks for the postseason.
A year ago in my 2018 MLB Preview and Predictions piece, I got four of the six divisions correct. I missed out on the Milwaukee Brewers edging my Chicago Cubs pick for the NL Central, as well as the Atlanta Braves, who I had for third place in the NL East.
My NL Wildcards were those Brewers and the Colorado Rockies. So the Braves were the only NL playoff team that I missed. In the AL, I had the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Angels as those Wildcard teams. Right divison, wrong team, as the Oakland Athletics actually captured an AL Wildcard spot instead of those Halos.
For the Fall Classic, I predicted that the defending champion Houston Astros would repeat by downing the Cubs in five games in a match-up between the two previous World Series titlists.
Those Cubs would end up losing a thrilling 2-1 NL Wildcard Game to the Rockies at Wrigley Field. The Astros returned to the ALCS, but were eliminated in five games by the eventual World Series champion Boston Red Sox.
Since I am writing for a Phillies-centric site, a bit of a disclaimer: this piece is not Phillies-centric. There will be plenty of times here at Phillies Nation where we cover the wider story of Major League Baseball. As for our favorite home nine, well, you are going to have to look elsewhere if you want to find a “homer” World Series prediction. At least this year.
Now time to reveal my predictions for the upcoming 2019 season. As always, I would love to hear your own picks in the comments section or on social media. Play ball!

2019 NATIONAL LEAGUE AWARD WINNERS

MOST VALUABLE PLAYERPaul Goldschmidt, Saint Louis
Contenders: Bryce Harper PHI, Nolan Arenado COL, Christian Yelich MIL, Ronald Acuna ATL, Cody Bellinger LAD
CY YOUNG AWARDStephen Strasburg, Washington
Contenders: Max Scherzer WAS, Noah Syndergaard NYM, Jack Flaherty STL, Aaron Nola PHI, Patrick Corbin WAS
ROOKIE OF THE YEARVictor Robles, Washington
Contenders: Alex Reyes STL, Fernando Tatis Jr. SD, Nick Senzel CIN, Luis Urias SD, Chris Paddack SD
MANAGER OF THE YEARDave Martinez, Washington
Contenders: Joe Maddon CHC, Dave Roberts LAD, Dave Martinez WAS, Gabe Kapler PHI
COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEARCorey Seager, Los Angeles
Contenders: Yu Darvish CHI, Alex Reyes STL, Josh Donaldson ATL, Andrew Miller STL
2019 AMERICAN LEAGUE AWARD WINNERS
MOST VALUABLE PLAYERCarlos Correa, Houston
Contenders: Giancarlo Stanton NYY, Mike Trout LAA, Mookie Betts BOS, Alex Bregman HOU, Francisco Lindor CLE
CY YOUNG AWARDChris Sale, Boston
Contenders: Gerrit Cole HOU, Blake Snell TB, Justin Verlander HOU, Trevor Bauer CLE, James Paxton NYY
ROOKIE OF THE YEAREloy Jimenez, Chicago
Contenders: Vladimir Guerrero Jr.TOR, Josh James HOU, Danny Jansen TOR, Yusei KikuchiSEA
MANAGER OF THE YEARBrad Ausmus, Los Angeles
Contenders: Aaron Boone NYY, A.J. Hinch HOU, Bob Melvin OAK, Kevin Cash TB, Alex CoraBOS, Terry Francona, CLE
COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEARByron Buxton, Minnesota
Contenders: Gary Sanchez NYY, Miguel Cabrera DET, Aaron Sanchez TOR, Jonathan Schoop MIN
2019 MLB DIVISIONAL & WILDCARD PREDICTIONS
NATIONAL LEAGUE
NL EAST: Washington, Philadelphia, Atlanta, New York, Miami
Since their franchise moved to Washington, the Phillies and Nationals have never been involved in a genuine NL East campaign where both were contenders. That changes this year and likely for years to come, and the Harper move adds a next level of spice to the budding arch-rivalry. But the Braves also have a lot of good young talent. I’ve been referring to the Mets as the “Mess” for years. Something always seems to go wrong, and until they prove it on the field, I’ll say the same this year. The Marlins are simply a rebuilding non-factor for the most part. This should prove to be a division where key injuries go a long way towards deciding things each year for awhile.
NL CENTRAL: Saint Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh
A contending Cardinals team is nearly as certain as death and taxes. The arch-rival Cubs and defending division champ Brew Crew should each again be strong. This looks a bit like the NL East to me, a real three-team dog fight that may only be settled by key injuries and big September head-to-head battles. The Reds are better, but not good enough. The Bucs also have talent, just not enough to keep up with the leaders here. This could well be baseball’s “black and blue” division in 2019, with no truly easy divisional opponents.
NL WEST: Los Angeles, Colorado, San Diego, Arizona, San Francisco
The Dodgers have won six straight divisional crowns and eight of the last 11 in the west. You want to be the best? Gotta beat the best. The Rockies are talented and the Padres are coming, but Los Angeles still looks to me like they have enough of everything – assuming health of their key performers. The Dbacks and Giants may need to start more seriously thinking about major rebuilding plans or face years of non-contention here.
NL WILDCARDS: Philadelphia, Chicago – welcome back to the MLB postseason, Phillies Nation! Oh, and how would you like to try an Aaron Nola – Cole Hamels winner-take-all pitching match-up on for size?
AMERICAN LEAGUE
AL EAST: Boston, New York, Tampa Bay, Toronto, Baltimore
The Bosox and Yankees could each well win 100 games again this year. Last year, Boston’s 108 victories gave them an eight-game cushion on their arch-rivals. I think it will be much closer this time around. The Rays almost always put up more of a fight than anyone believes, so much so that we now expect it. The Jays have possibilities down the road, but not in 2019. If you are looking for a current sad-sack story in the AL, well, there should prove to be plenty of seats available all summer at gorgeous Camden Yards in Baltimore. It’s worth the ride, Philly.
AL CENTRAL: Cleveland, Minnesota, Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City
I truly believe that they are no longer at the level of the American League’s ‘Big Three’ ball clubs. But something tells me that Terry Francona is once again going to get the most out of his team. The Twins have been the fashionable pick as a surprise American League contender. If that turns out true, I believe it will have to be for a Wildcard berth. The Chisox have a ton of serious young talent coming, but it may take another couple of years to pull it all together. I just don’t see any scenario where either the Tigers or Royals contend here for the next few years.
AL WEST: Houston, Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle, Texas
The Astros won the first World Series in franchise history two years ago, were good enough to win it last year, and remain one of the favorites in 2019. Everyone else here is fighting for Wildcard relevance. With Mike Trout locked up for the rest of his career, look for the Angels to do everything in their power to start putting more pieces in place around him to truly contend. The A’s over-achieved last year. I don’t believe in them doing it again at that level. And there is just not enough talent in either Seattle or Texas for a playoff push, and may not be for a few years to come.
AL WILDCARDS: New York, Los Angeles
2019 MLB PLAYOFFS & WORLD SERIES
Two years ago, I predicted that the Washington Nationals would finally end years of postseason frustration and capture the first-ever World Series title in franchise history, defeating the Boston Red Sox in seven games. It didn’t happen as the Nats were edged out by the Cubs in a five-game NLDS.
Now with Harper gone to the division-rival Phillies, some might think that the Nationals best chances to win are over. Not so. There is plenty of talent and veteran leadership remaining in the nation’s capital. What was already the best starting rotation in the NL may have gotten better and deeper. And the Nats will replace Harper with the dynamic Robles, my NL Rookie of the Year choice.
I’m going to pick Washington to finally win a playoff series. It will be the first since the move to D.C. from Montreal, and only the second in franchise history. Not only that, but the Nats take it a step further, finally pushing their way into the Fall Classic behind strong pitching and a versatile lineup.
After the Phillies and Aaron Nola win the NL Wildcard Game over the Cubs the local crew is dispatched in an emotional NLDS by the Nationals. The Cardinals knock the Dodgers off the National League perch. And then the Nats take out Saint Louis in the NLCS.
The American League should once again be dominated by a Big Three made up of the defending world champion Boston Red Sox, their arch-rivals the New York Yankees, and the 2017 champion Houston Astros.
I’ll be stunned if the American League pennant winner does not come from one of those three ball clubs. Honestly, I cannot pick between those three. The Yanks overpower Mike Trout and the Angels in the AL Wildcard Game, then dispatch the Astros in an ALDS. The rival Bosox take out the Indians in the other ALDS, setting up a classic rivalry ALCS.
Picking a winner in a Yankees-Red Sox series is always a tricky proposition. But repeating is very difficult, and something is telling me that the Yanks, who have not been back to the World Series since their 2009 win a decade ago over the Phillies, are ready to power their way back to the Fall Classic.
And then, much to the chagrin of Harper and the Phillies, I am going to predict that the Washington Nationals erase their name from the list of seven MLB teams to never win a World Series. Call it Washington in six games over the Bronx Bombers.
And there we have it, my 2019 Major League Baseball preview and predictions. Feel free to leave your own picks in the comments section, and let’s get ready to play ball.
Originally published at Phillies Nation as Matt Veasey’s 2019 Major League Baseball preview and predictions

ALCS: Houston Astros vs New York Yankees preview and prediction

Judge (top), Altuve lead teams into ALCS

The Houston Astros are right where most baseball pundits thought they would be when the 2017 MLB postseason began. The club will begin play in the American League Championship Series beginning on Friday night.

The Astros finished 101-61, the second best record in the American League. The surprise is that they will be opening this ALCS at home in Minute Maid Park.

The vast majority of those pundits, myself included, believed that Houston would be traveling to Cleveland to face the Indians, who won 102 games, the best record in the American League.

However, the Tribe were stunned in the ALDS by the New York Yankees. That was after favored Cleveland had jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the series.

Game Three was a nail-biting 1-0 affair. With a chance to sweep, the Indians had two runners on and two out in the 9th inning. But Carlos Santana’s drive to deep left-center field was hauled in by Aaron Hicks, and the Yanks stayed alive.

New York then tied the series up behind a gem from young ace Luis Severino, and finished the comeback with Brett Gardner’s huge two-out, two-run single in the top of the 9th inning of Game Five.

So it will be the Astros hosting those Yankees for the first two games. For Houston, this will mark the franchise first ALCS appearance. The club moved from the NL Central to the AL West for the 2013 season.

As members of the National League, the Astros won a half-dozen division crowns, making four appearances in the NLCS. They won just a single National League pennant in that time, going on to suffer a sweep at the hands of the Chicago White Sox in the 2005 World Series.

The Yankees went 91-71 to capture the top AL Wildcard playoff berth this season. They spotted the Minnesota Twins a 3-run first inning, and came roaring back to win that AL Wildcard Game by an 8-4 score. That led to the drama against Cleveland.

Houston captured their ALDS by 3-1 over the Boston Red Sox. The Astros scored three times over the final two innings, then held on at Fenway Park for a tough 5-4 victory in Game Four to seal the deal.

Both managers, Houston’s A.J. Hinch and the Yankees Joe Girardi, were big league backup journeyman catchers.

Hinch played seven seasons from 1998-2004 with seven different teams. He was with Oakland from 1998-2000, but did not appear in the 2000 ALDS in which the A’s were edged out 3-2 by the Yankees.

Girardi spent 15 MLB seasons spread across four organizations, with five of those coming as what would be considered the starting catcher. He won two World Series, with the Yankees in 1998 and 1999.

As a manager, Girardi guided New York to a victory in the 2009 World Series. The club has won three AL East crowns under his watch, but none since 2012. His Yankees teams have now come in second place in three of the last four seasons.

This is Hinch’s third year at the helm in Houston. He skippered the Arizona Diamondbacks for parts of two earlier seasons. This was the club’s first division crown in the American League, and so obviously the first under Hinch.

The Houston lineup is led by AL MVP candidate Jose Altuve.  The diminutive second baseman went 8-11 with five runs scored over the first three games of the ALDS, including a three-homer performance in the opener. He hit for a .346/.410/.547 slash in the regular season, with 24 homers and a team-high 32 steals.

The left-side infield combo of shortstop Carlos Correa and third baseman Alex Bregman is one of the youngest and most talented in all of baseball. Center fielder George Springer led Houston with 34 home runs and tied Altuve for the team lead with 112 runs scored.

In addition to their young talent, the Astros have a bevy of savvy veterans, many of whom bring playoff experience. The group includes Marwin Gonzalez, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, Evan Gattis, Cameron Maybe, Yuli Gurriel, and Josh Reddick.

The Yankees also have a group of talented youngsters, including the lead AL Rookie of the Year contender in right fielder Aaron Judge. His prodigious power produced 52 home runs this year. Judge also led the team with 128 runs scored and 114 RBI.

Catcher Gary Sanchez slammed 33 homers during the season. He and slugging young first baseman Greg Bird each slammed a pair of ALDS home runs. The middle infield of second baseman Starlin Castro and shortstop Didi Gregorius is strong defensively, and both can hit, including with power.

There is plenty of veteran support in the Yankees lineup and dugout as well. Gardner, Hicks, Jacoby Ellsbury, Matt Holliday, Chase Headley, and Todd Frazier providing that experience and leadership.

Both Girardi and Hinch have chosen to go with an extra pitcher on their ALCS rosters, carrying a dozen arms apiece. This is a clear nod to the possibility of needing to utilize the “bullpenning” trend that has taken Major League Baseball by storm in the postseason.

Girardi is giving the ball to Masahiro Tanaka to take the mound for the opener, with Hinch opting for lefty Dallas Keuchel.

The 28-year old Tanaka won 13 games during the regular season. It was his brilliant Game Three outing that started the Yankees ALDS comeback. He shut the Indians out on three hits over seven innings in that start, striking out seven and allowing just one walk.

Keuchel was the 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner. The 29-year old won 14 games this season despite missing most of June and July to injury. Seven of his last nine regular season outings were of the Quality Start variety. He then won Game Two of the ALDS vs Boston with 5.2 strong innings.

Two years ago, it was Tanaka vs Keuchel when these same two clubs met in the AL Wildcard Game. In that one, Keuchel got the better with a brilliant outing, shutting the Yankees out on three hits over six innings in which he struck out seven. The Astros won 3-0 to advance.

Game Two will feature a pair of aces at opposite ends of the age and experience poles. The 23-year old Severino will go for New York. He will face 34-year old veteran trade deadline acquisition Justin Verlander for Houston.

Back in the Bronx for Game Three, the managers have announced a battle of veterans. 33-year old right-hander Charlie Morton is scheduled to go for Houston against 37-year old lefty C.C. Sabathia for the Yanks.

Girardi has already announced that Sonny Gray will be his Game Four starter. Hinch has not tipped his hand as yet for that game, which won’t take place until next Tuesday. That start likely will go to one from among a trio of righties: Collin McHugh, Lance McCullers, or Brad Peacock, depending on their usage out of the bullpen.

The Yankee skipper wouldn’t mind at all if this turned into a battle of the bullpens. He can call on one of the game’s best and deepest with right-handers Dellin Batances, Chad Green, Tommy Kahnle, Adam Warren, Jordan Montgomery, and David Robertson. From the left-side he can bring Jaime Garcia and his fireballing closer Aroldis Chapman.

Hinch will try to mix-and-match with right-handers Chris Devenski, Will Harris, Luke Gregerson, Joe Musgrave, and closer Ken Giles. He could also call on any of those potential Game Four starters listed previously. From the left side it’s only Francisco Liriano available, though Keuchel could conceivably see action later in the series.

These two ball clubs met seven times during the regular season. Houston captured five of the seven. The Astros won three of four at Yankee Stadium mid-May, then two of three in Houston as June turned to July.

Each of the Yankees wins this year over the Astros came when the Bronx Bombers opened up offensively. They scored 11 and 13 runs respectively in those two victories. New York scored just 13 runs in the five Houston victories.

I underestimated the Yankees against the Indians. I am not doing the same thing again – but I am once again picking against them. I am calling it Astros in six games. This should be an exciting series, one that I believe Houston will find enough in to advance to only the second World Series appearance in franchise history.

ALDS Prediction: Houston Astros over Boston Red Sox

One ALDS opens this afternoon with Houston hosting Boston

The Division Series open today in the American League, and each series features a strong AL East contender.

I’m picking both of these “beasts of the east” to go down at the hands of what like slightly more talented opponents.

In one ALDS, the Houston Astros, champions of the AL West, will be facing the Boston Red Sox, champs of the AL East. In the other series, the Cleveland Indians, champions of the AL Central and the defending American League champs, will be taking on the wildcard New York Yankees.

Let’s take the Houston-Boston matchup first. The Astros won 101 games during the regular season, running away with the AL West crown by 21 games.

It was the franchise’ first division title since 2001, and puts them into the postseason for the second time in three years. In 2015, Houston was edged out in a five-game ALDS by the eventual World Series champion Kansas City Royals.

The Red Sox went 93-69, and held off the Yankees down the stretch to capture their second consecutive division title, their third in five seasons. The Bosox were swept out of the ALDS a year ago by Cleveland.

Left-handers Chris Sale and Drew Pomeranz are scheduled to pitch the first two games in Houston for Red Sox skipper John Farrell. Veteran righty Doug Fister is slated to go on Saturday in Game Three back at Fenway Park in Boston.

For the Astros and manager A.J. Hinch, taking the mound will be trade deadline acquisition Justin Verlander in the opener. The veteran righty will be followed by lefty Dallas Keuchel in Game Two at home.

Hinch has not yet announced his starter for Game Three. That choice will likely come down to veteran Charlie Morton or young righty Lance McCullers.

The Red Sox feature one of the most exciting young lineups combos in baseball. That lineup, with ages in parentheses, includes shortstop Xander Bogaerts (25), third baseman Rafael Devers (21 later this month), left fielder Andrew Benintendi (23), center fielder Jackie Bradley (27), and right fielder Mookie Betts (25 in two days.)

Each of those players is likely to contend for AL All-Star berths and league awards for years to come. Their presence virtually assures that Boston will continue to contend into the next decade.

Second baseman Dustin Pedroia and DH Hanley Ramirez bring veteran leadership and experience, as well as continued offensive production as they move towards their mid-30’s.

Farrell won’t hesitate to use normal starters David Price, Eduardo Rodriguez, or Rick Porcello out of his bullpen, especially in the first couple of games. Joe Kelly, Addison Reed, and lights-out closer Craig Kimbrel, all righties, could allow Farrell to easily go to a “bullpenning” game strategy.

For Houston, the lineup also features a group of dynamic youngsters. Second baseman Jose Altuve (27), shortstop Carlos Correa (23), third baseman Alex Bregman (23), and center fielder George Springer (28) give the Astros their own core group for years to come.

One reason that I like Houston to win this series is their veterans. Catchers Brian McCann and Evan Gattis, DH Carlos Beltran, and outfielder Cameron Maybin are part of a versatile group that has been through the wars.

The Astros also have one of baseball’s top “X-factor” players in Marwin Gonzalez. The 28-year old switch-hitter can literally play every position on the diamond. He played 19 games at third base, 22 at second, 31 at first, and 38 games at shortstop, as well as 47 games in left field.

On the mound, Hinch can turn to righties Brad Peacock, Joe Musgrove, Will Harris, Chris Devenski, Luke Gregerson, and closer Ken Giles. From the left side, former starter Francisco Liriano is his lone option. Also, he may opt to use McCullers out of the pen.

The Astros ran away and hid in their division. This was a team assembled with a deep October run in mind. I think they get at least into the middle of the month. The veteran lineup options make a difference for me in predicting Houston to win in four games.

Houston Astros win their first American League West Division crown

Verlander celebrates with Houston fans (photo: ESPN)

For the first time since the 2001 season, the Houston Astros are division champions.

For the first time in franchise history, they are the champions of the American League West Division.

The Astros drubbed the visiting Seattle Mariners by a 7-1 score on Sunday afternoon at Minute Maid Park to clinch the crown.

The victory was made possible by a tremendous outing from newly acquired ace Justin Verlander, and four home runs from the team’s powerful lineup.

Verlander, picked up in an August 31 trade with the Detroit Tigers, allowed just a single earned run on three hits over seven innings. He struck out 10 and walked just one batter in raising his overall record to 13-8 on the season.

The 33-year old veteran right-hander has won all three of his starts since moving to the Astros. He has yielded just two earned runs on 10 hits over 21 innings in those starts, with a dominating 26/3 K:BB ratio.

This was Verlander’s first start in an Astros uniform in front of the home crowd in Houston. Per Brian McTaggart for MLB.com, clinching the division with this kind of performance made the experience all the more special:

“No matter what, whether it’s two weeks to go in the season or the last day in the season, these games, you can feel it,” Verlander said per McTaggart. “You know there’s a little more at stake. Yeah, it was a lot of fun to be out there. I don’t know if you could ask for more for your home debut for a chance to clinch the division. I don’t know how often that happens, but it’s pretty special.




Home runs from rookie Derek Fisher (5), Marwin Gonzalez (22), George Springer (22), and Carlos Correa (21) overcame an early 1-0 Seattle lead.

The Houston franchise was founded back in 1962 as the Houston Colt .45’s, change the nickname to Astros for the 1965 season. 

After playing in the National League through 1968 prior to divisional play, the club was assigned to the NL West Division in 1969, where they would remain through the 1993 season. They won NL West crowns in 1980 and 1986.

Houston then moved to the National League Central Division when MLB split to a three-division setup for the 1993 season. The Astros would remain there through 2012, capturing three straight NL Central crowns from 1997-99, and a fourth in 2001.

In 2013, Houston was moved over to the American League West Division, largely to form a natural geographic rivalry with the in-state Texas Rangers. 

In their first season in the AL West, the Astros went just 51-111 and finished in last place. This is the club’s third consecutive winning season. They reached the postseason back in 2015 as an AL Wildcard, dropping the ALDS to the Kansas City Royals in a hard-fought five-game series that year.

Houston led the division for all but five early-April days this season. Per McTaggart, Astros’ manager A.J. Hinch appreciated the difficulty in trying to stay on top over a long six-month campaign.

“It’s not easy going wire to wire the way we did,” Hinch said per McTaggart. “We were expected to win. We come up and had some exceptional months and faced a little bit of adversity, and we end up coming back strong with one of the best runs here in September so far. It’s only the first feeling we’re going to have like this. We got a chance for more feelings like this.

The Astros joined the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central and the Washington Nationals of the NL East in clinching a 2017 division crown. The Los Angeles Dodgers of the NL West have clinched at least a Wildcard berth, and are on the verge of also clinching their division.

Hinch and his team still have something to play for over the final two weeks of the regular season. They are battling Cleveland for the top overall record in the American League, and home field advantage in a playoff series. They trail the Tribe by just one game in the loss column in that race.

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