Reds, White Sox Lead Surprise Candidates for 2019 MLB Season

Rainman M.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018 1:51 PM UTC

Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018 1:51 PM UTC

It's easy to look at the 2018 standings and gauge what teams may be in the playoff picture next season. But, there are two other teams who demand bettors' attention at least as safe win total "over" bets.

It's usually misleading to designate a team as a "surprise team." The teams that end up surprising people may seem to have come from nowhere given their overall record. But more often than not, they already showed prolonged flashes of potential in terms of demonstrating the ability to win and in terms of developing player quality. Let's look at two such teams who are primed to make major steps forward in the win column in 2019 and will therefore look to be strong win total "over" candidates.

Cincinnati Reds

From June 17 to the All-Star break, the Reds flexed their muscles, producing a 20-8 record. During that time span, they swept the Cubs in four games and won series against Cleveland, St. Louis, and Atlanta. The key was that they were able to produce runs en masse. In those 28 games, they scored more than six runs in 15 of them. Scoring is something they will continue to do well in 2019. They had five batters who, in at least 250 at-bats, produced at least a .280 BA. For comparison's sake, the NL Central-winning Brewers had only two hitters who satisfied those criteria. The Reds' lineup is already playoff-caliber and it will keep getting better. The Reds boast one of the most highly touted prospects in Nick Senzel. He'll be healthy in the Fall and, despite his natural preference for third base, he could be a suitable replacement for Billy Hamilton in center field, meaning that the Reds would get a much better hitter with satisfactory fielding skills. Also look out for Scooter Gennett, who led the team with a .310 BA and .490 slugging. Plus, 2017 MVP nominee Joey Votto has arguably the best eyes at the plate of any hitter.

The key to the Reds' improvement, though, is their pitching, which quite frankly was awful in 2018. Luis Castillo, 25, spearheads their rotation. His 3.89 ERA after two seasons is nothing to write home about, but, with his pitch quality, he's primed for a breakout season. He finished in the top 20% among starters in strikeout per nine innings while maintaining a serviceable walk rate. Castillo throws serious heat. His top two pitches average 97 mph. His second season was much worse because, in the middle of it, he lost some velocity in his fastball, which he stopped trusting to be his primary pitch. He regained both his velo and success with his fastball en route to posting a 1.09 September ERA. As he matures, Castillo will grow in both maturity and consistency.

The Reds have some stable options in their bullpen. Jared Hughes posted a sub-two ERA. Raisel Iglesias is similarly effective as a closer. What impresses me most about the Reds' pitching staff is its flexibility. It boasts a number of guys who can produce long outings from the bullpen, which makes the Reds a candidate to join baseball's current trend of relying more heavily on its bullpen. For example, Amir Garrett is a young stud whose numbers suffered simply from prolonged health issues, but has multiple plus offerings in his arsenal. Cody Reed and Michael Lorenzen are a couple additional youngsters who posted sub-four ERAs.

The Reds have the talent in their lineup. With budding youth in its pitchers from the highly talented Castillo, to its lethal Hughes-Iglesias combo at the end of games, and its slew of developing multi-inning bullpen prospects, the Reds will enjoy a strong 2019 season.

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Chicago White Sox

The White Sox have been actively building one of baseball's most highly ranked farm systems. The quality of youth is almost unparalleled. Plus, the team has a modest staple of reliable veterans. In the lineup, Jose Abreu had achieved at least 25 homers and a .290 BA in four consecutive seasons before a relatively injury-ridden season kept him from prolonging that streak last year. Abreu is old, but he's definitely not Miguel Cabrera old and he'll be back healthy. Avi Garcia is a younger but no less reliable bat whose season was likewise plagued by injury. He was also relatively unlucky in that his xwOBA (expected weighted on-base average) was significantly higher than his actual wOBA. Garcia hit .330 and slugged .506 in 2017. In 2018, expect Chicago's two best hitters to avoid similar bad luck and be their usual, successful selves.

In terms of youth, look out for Leury Garcia, another hitter whose season was cut short due to injury. He batted a career-best .271 while making similarly strong progress in his base-stealing ability that Tim Anderson did. Also watch for budding catcher Omar Narvaez, whose slugging improved .89 in his third season. Daniel Palka tied all rookies with 27 homers. Jose Rondon, 24, slugged .470 as a rookie. He already plays great defense and just needs to work on building a consistent BA. The most interesting player is Yoan Moncada, widely dubbed as baseball's top prospect. Moncada was massively disappointing last season, showing only glimpses of his potential. While Chicago waits on him to break out, top prospect Eloy Jimenez is the next big thing. He produced a .355 BA and .641 slugging in Triple A, so he looks to bring all the power of Rondon plus a stronger BA.

Chicago's rotation is led by Carlos Rodon, 25, who has shown more than just the glimpses in potential evident from Moncada. In July and August he achieved a sub-two ERA. He has been particularly strong at home, where he pitches the most. His home ERA was 3.58. He features an A+ slider that opponents hit .117 against. His opposing fastball BA was .208 in 2017 and he can make it that effective again by replenishing its glove-side movement so that it regains its previous elusiveness. Reynaldo Lopez, 24, is a rising stud. In his first complete season, he achieved a 3.91 ERA. He ended the season with a 1.09 September ERA. He was basically untouchable, striking out a much larger rate of batters and allowing fewer homers. The key to that improvement was dropping his opposing fastball BA to .182. He added more spin, avoided the middle of the plate, pinpointed its location better, elevated it more consistently, generated more whiffs with it and produced a five percent higher strike rate.

In the bullpen, the White Sox also already have some pieces set. Ryan Burr was solid in the minors and got a taste of professional action including a two-inning, one-hit performance against the Cubs. Jace Fry is another rising stud whose numbers look bad because of a few select performances mostly in games where the result was all but decided. He has shown the ability to be a consistent staple. Moreover, flamethrower Juan Minaya produced a career-best 3.28 ERA, Nate Jones is a proven veteran who produced a 2.29 ERA in 2016. Despite being plagued by injuries in 2017 and 2018, the White Sox exercised enough confidence in his ability to stay healthy to exercise his option for 2019. Lastly, Ian Hamilton produced a 1.74 ERA and 22 saves in the minors. His overpowering fastball and lethal slider make him immediate closer material.

With less bad luck in terms of injuries, more development in its youth including the arrival of Jimenez plus Moncada's hopeful rise to his potential, Chicago's lineup can be feared. Its starting rotation already has two strong components who will only get better plus a bullpen that is stacked with developing talent in Fry and Hamilton and boasts the more proven commodities in Minaya and especially a healthy Jones.

Both the Reds and White Sox stand out to me and are worth monitoring as the off-season progresses with a view to betting on their regular-season win totals with your MLB picks.

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