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Revisiting Phillies’ season predictions after one month

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Almost one month into the M.L.B. regular season, which started on March 29 of this year — the earliest Opening Day in league history — and the Philadelphia Phillies have played 21 games. As with every year and every team, baseball analysts and fans alike made predictions in the winter and early spring about the Phillies’ upcoming season. These projections were made by local Phillies and Philadelphia sports specific websites and media platforms, as well as national news and sports outlets. The national media sources tended to be slightly more conservative in their estimations. Forecasts were made in areas ranging from pitching and hitting statistics to playoffs, rankings, and trades. After one month of regular season ball games, it might be interesting to revisit some of these predictions and see if the team is on the right track to making these predictions come true.

FanGraphs.com, which provides Sabermetrics (an objective, statistics-based way of evaluating players overwhelmingly popular in the game today) on every player in Major League Baseball history, gave us a relatively unenthusiastic and safe prediction for the Phillies’ ultimate record for the 2018 season.  Although they have the team beating their 2017 (66-96) record by eight games, that would only put them at 74 wins and 88 losses. They also predict a fourth-place finish in the N.L. East, behind the Nats, Mets and Braves in that order. USA Today used season simulations from six writers and foresee a third place finish behind the Nats and the Mets but tied with the Braves for thirds place and finishing with a slightly better record of 76-86. This is an exciting prediction given that the Phillies face the Braves for three games tomorrow through Sunday at home. A record of  74-88 or 76-86 would have the Phillies winning roughly 45 percent of their games. At this point in the season, the Phillies are surpassing this prediction. They have played 21 games, with a total of 14 wins and 7 losses, which means they have won about 67 percent of their games thus far.

In addition to overall season records, predictions were made in the camp of individual batting success. BaseballProspectus.com anticipates four players on the 2018 Phillies roster hitting 20 or more home runs before the season is through. These players and their predicted season sum of homers are as follows:  outfielder Nick Williams (20), third baseman Maikel Franco (22), first baseman/designated hitter/catcher Carlos Santana (23), and first baseman/outfielder Rhys Hoskins (36). If this prediction comes to fruition, that will be a drastic increase from last year when Franco (24) and Tommy Joseph (22) were the only two over the 20-home run mark. Below are predicted statistics on each of these player’s individual success as hitters from PhilliesNation.com on Opening Day. (They tend to be a little more generous than the Prospectus predictions in terms of HRs.)

Nick Williams – 645 PA, .285/.341/.480, 22 HR

Maikel Franco – 627 PA, .281/.355/.522, 30 HR

Carlos Santana – 675 PA, .265/.370/.475, 28 HR

Rhys Hoskins – 550 PA, .260/.360/.530, 36 HR.

Currently, the aforementioned players have these averages:

Nick Williams – 46 PA, .217/.294/.326, 1 HR

Maikel Franco – 58 PA, .241/.292/.414, 2 HR

Carlos Santana – 73 PA, .151/.301/.288, 2 HR

Rhys Hoskins – 65 PA, .323/.483/.615, 4 HR.

As you can see, since the Phillies have played 21 out of the 162 games in a regular season, they have already completed 13 percent of their games. These plate appearance and home run numbers are not up to speed with that 13 percent Furthermore, with the exception of Hoskins, the batting averages are not as good at this point in the season as was predicted.

Although the Phillies seem to be surpassing their predicted wins-losses record, their hitting seems to be falling behind the track of success that was predicted almost a month ago on Opening Day. Though they seem to have not yet played much against the predicted top teams for their division, their defense seems to be doing really well at this point in the season — which was not envisioned before Opening Day. As for the offense, hitting can be quite sporadic, so there is hope the Phillies batters can improve to the point of achieving their predicted batting averages. What can be said about this spring with near certainty is that the Phillies are on their way to having a better season than their last!

The rise of minor league baseball

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If you’re not a super serious baseball fan, you probably have no idea what minor league baseball is, and that’s okay. The game of baseball, in general, seems to be the only major sport in America where players are still developing and refining their skills even through their mid-20s. Even the very best high school and college players do not possess skills refined enough to compete immediately after being drafted. Any story of a player skipping minor league baseball is noteworthy.

Since the turn of the century, only Xavier Nady, who was drafted out of Cal Berkeley, and Mike Leake, drafted out of Arizona State, have skipped minor league baseball all together after being drafted out of either high school or college. However, both barely count. Nady received a lone at-bat for the Padres and began the following year in the minors. Mike Leake did not play the year he was drafted but came back the next year, giving him extra time to develop. The last American-born and drafted player to truly skip the Minors entirely was John Olerud from Washington State in 1989.

Each major league team provides players for their own minor league teams. The lowest rung on the minor league ladder is Rookie ball. The Arizona League and Gulf Coast League hold the rookie ball teams for all 30 MLB organizations. There is also an advanced/upper rookie ball level, but not all organizations have a team at this level. Usually high schoolers and lower drafted college players begin at rookie levels. The next level is short season single-A ball, where the season does not start until the end of extended spring training. One level is regular single-A, sometimes referred to as low-A. The next level up, and the last level of single-A, is advanced single-A. The best college players, or simply the oldest players drafted, usually begin at some variation of single-A ball.

The next jump is said to be the greatest in minor league baseball. Although going up each level in general can be a tough task, there is no greater adjustment than the jump from single-A to double-A. This is because by the time a player has reached double-A, they have been in the minors for some time, and have thus refined their skills and raw talent. The game becomes much cleaner. The next level is triple-A. Although technically above double-A, this level is not necessarily more competitive. Sometimes organizations will stash backup players at triple-A, so the players at that level tend to be more experienced, but not always more talented. Sometimes organizations will call up players directly from double-A, skipping triple-A.

As I mentioned before, baseball is the only major sports in America that possesses this type of farm system. In the N.B.A., the best players coming out of the draft are ready to make an immediate impact on the court. For example, the Lakers didn’t stash Lonzo Ball, the no. 2 overall draft pick, in the G-League, the N.B.A.’s lone minor league level, until he was ready. Instead they anticipated he would be an impact player this year. Call-ups from the G-League are so rare they qualify as news. Whereas, in baseball, players get called up from the minors all the time. The N.F.L. has no minor league system of any kind. The N.H.L. is the only other sport that views minor leaguers as legitimate prospects, but to an extent that does not compare to baseball.

For whatever reason, players take much longer to develop in baseball. Being able to predict which players will develop into stars is a difficult task in and of itself. This is mainly because many baseball players are late bloomers.

To a member of the general public, the idea of watching raw, undeveloped players on a small stage might not be as appealing as going to a major league game. However, in recent times, minor league baseball has seen a huge surge in popularity. According to a league report posted by Minor League Baseball (MiLB), minor league teams drew almost 42 million fans in 2017, the the 13th consecutive season of drawing at least 41 million fans.  The Dayton Dragons, the single-A team for the Cincinnati Reds, hold the North American record for most consecutive sellouts in all professional sports leagues, with a streak of 1,246 consecutive games. Their ability to draw fans is unparalleled.

Soon enough, minor league teams may be able to compete for attendance with their own parent clubs. Last week, the Marlins double-A team, the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp, drew a crowd of 6,960 fans, edging their parent club, who drew 6,150 fans.

Although this is probably more of a manifestation of current popular displeasure the Miami fan-base has with how the Marlins traded their three best players, it is still noteworthy that minor league baseball is much more popular than one might think.

A variety of factors might be fueling this popularity, including accessibility. Major league games are becoming more and more expensive, with parking cost and food costs rising in addition to the price of the ticket. My local minor league team in Southern California charges around $15 for the best seat in the house, which might not even get you parking at Dodger Stadium. The price isn’t the only thing that makes minor league games accessible. There are 176 Mi.L.B.-affiliated teams, far outnumbering the M.L.B.’s 30. Many of these teams are located in places where there is no Major League Baseball team nearby. Utah, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and New Mexico are states without an M.L.B. team, but with a number of Mi.L.B. teams.

If you haven’t been to a minor league baseball game, I’m sure there is a team in your area. Minor league teams take pride in providing a fun, family-friendly atmosphere for those looking for a more peaceful experience at the ballpark. Given the relative affordability and incredible atmosphere, it’s no surprise we have seen such a rise in popularity the past several years.

Evaluating the economics of the MLB offseason

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When it comes to trading, signing, and acquiring players in general, baseball might be the most complex game in the country. The rules and laws that surround the mere process of building a roster can not only bring people headaches, but may also take several hours to explain to anyone not already familiar with them.

At this very moment, the process of acquiring players during this offseason has been made further complicated by a serious economic issue: an unusually high supply of quality players coupled with low immediate demand for these said players. As a result, the 2017-2018 offseason is one of the coldest and most stagnant in baseball history, even with a strong free agent class.

Some of the best players in the game, including Jake Arrieta and Mike Moustakas, and some non-elite but still strong players like Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn, and Logan Morrison, still remain unsigned headed into Spring Training. Had I written this article last week, top-of-the-class players J.D. Martinez and Yu Darvish would still have been free agents. Even then, both Martinez and Darvish received what some considered “undersized” contracts given their skill level. Darvish’s contract is especially undersized compared to his pitching counterpart David Price. Two years ago, Price inked a deal with the Red Sox worth $217 million over 7 years, averaging $31 million per year. Darvish’s contract is $126 million over 6 years, averaging $21 million per year. The difference is not reflective of talent, as many feel Darvish is a much better pitcher than Price.

The question everyone has been asking is why is this offseason so slow and why are players signing contracts that some may feel don’t reflect their true value? As I said, there is a serious economic issue at hand. The answer can be found in the holy grail of economics: markets.

Many people argue that the reason the offseason was so slow is because the pay grade for players in currently inflated — the market needed to eventually correct itself. In 2000, the average player made about $1.9 million, with that number more than doubling to $3.9 million in 2015. Although revenues for teams is also increasing at a similar rate, the increase in salary will outpace the increase in revenue, if it hasn’t already yet. A significant portion of revenue comes from ticket sales. As teams purchase more expensive players, they need to compensate with higher ticket prices. The higher prices have already begun to drive people away from attending games. As a result, attendance has declined the past several years. One can hypothesize that the attendance rate will dip to the point where growth in revenue will slow. To search deeper into the problem, we need to ask what has driven this inflation.

The answer is in the comparative nature of contracts. When players become free agents, they need to carefully negotiate their contracts so that they can maximize their payday without using high price to drive teams away. Like any market, you lose buyers at higher prices and gain buyers at lower ones. However, for sports in general, the price of a player is heavily dependent on the player’s skill and supply at his position. So how do players determine a proper asking price? In the past, their agents compared them to contracts of similar players, then let teams go out in a bidding war. As a result of the winner’s curse, the winning bidder needs to overpay to win the player. A good recent example is the Albert Pujols contract. In 2012, the Angels signed him for ten years at $240 million. Although a surefire hall of famer, Pujols is not worth that much as a player, but the cost of signing him is worth that much. Notice the difference in wording.

Further complicating the matter is the supply of players at any given offseason. Because of competitive balance rules, we rarely find dynasties in baseball anymore. Baseball teams are more likely to experience 2-3 of powerhouse play, both followed and preceded by 2-3 years of being terrible. The San Francisco Giants are an excellent example. They won the World Series in 2010, 2012, and 2014, but have since been one of the worst teams in baseball. An even better example is the Royals, who had the best farm system in baseball earlier in the decade, then capitalized on that by winning a World Series in 2015, only to fall back to the bottom of the pack. Because teams are constantly fluctuating between being in the “win now” or “win later” states, their demand for players is volatile.

Let’s consider J.D Martinez’s situation this offseason. The power hitting outfielder is coming off a career year, and has posted excellent numbers the past several years. Unfortunately for him, nearly all of the teams in baseball that are in a “win now” state are loaded with outfielders. Although an elite player, the Dodgers, Yankees, Cubs, Indians, and Astros declined to express interest in Martinez due to their currently strong outfielders. These teams would only be interested in Martinez at a bargain price, which Martinez was unwilling to accept up until now. Only two teams, the Red Sox and Diamondbacks, expressed interest in him at all. Even then, the Red Sox are stocked in the outfield with Betts, Bradley Jr., and Benintendi, and thus intend to use Martinez as as a designated hitter. However, due to the Diamondbacks being a small market team, they could not financially compete with the Red Sox, leaving a lonesome one-buyer-one-seller market.

Some experts blame the sudden decrease in demand as a result of next year’s free agent class being one of the strongest of all time. The hypothesis is that teams would prefer to trade for players this offseason as opposed to sign them because they want to save money for next year’s class, which features Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and Clayton Kershaw (if he opts-out). Either way, Martinez’s smaller contract was more a product of poor timing and bad luck than anything else.

However, there is even more economics at hand than so far discussed. Like any market, willingness to pay is heavily determined by income. In the case of professional baseball teams, many of them make enough to pay good player’s a substantial amount, but the luxury tax threshold severely deters teams from just doling out cash. The issue is that the increase in the average salary for players has not matched the increase in the luxury threshold. Thus, the cost of signing a player goes beyond his contract. Teams pay heavy taxes when they go above the threshold. In 2016, the Dodgers paid the most in taxes, forking over almost $32 million. To put that into perspective, Clayton Kershaw is the highest paid player in baseball per year at $33 million. The Dodgers could have added another all-star with that money.

As a result, teams have less purchasing power than their revenues might suggest, especially smaller market teams that simply can’t afford to go over the threshold.

The market corrected its inflation. Teams were no longer willing to overpay, since it simply wasn’t worth it (duh). The effect of the winner’s curse was erased. Because of this, many feel that the contracts Martinez and Darvish received were “what the market could bear” and were thus fair contracts.

But what inspired this to happen now?

Teams were done getting burned by bad contracts. Reconsider the Pujols contract. Pujols posted a -1.8 wins above replacement last year. In layman’s terms, he statistically made the Angles worse off by playing, a tough pill to swallow after being paid $24 million per year. Pujols has only gotten worse since signing, and the Angels are still on the hook for another four years.

Consider Jason Heyward. After never batting above .300 and only hitting more than 20 home-runs once in his career, the Cubs wrongly deemed him an elite player. They fell for the winner’s curse and over-signed him at $184 million over 8 years with a $20 million bonus. Since then, he has been absolutely atrocious both in the regular season and in the postseason. The Cubs will be forfeiting $23 million for the next six years for a player that didn’t hit his own weight in 2016.

As I mentioned before, teams all across baseball are simply tired of being burned by bad contracts. The lack of demand for the current free agent class was just the bubble finally bursting.

This will surely not happen next year, as the players in that free agent class are younger, better, and more primed to take on heavier contracts. Some say Bryce Harper may net a $400 million dollar deal over 10+ years. Only time will tell, as the market for talent appears to be a volatile one.

MLB Hall of Fame inductees announced

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On Wednesday, January 24, the MLB and Baseball Writer’s Association of America announced the 2018 MLB Hall of Fame Class: Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, Vladimir Guerrero, and Trevor Hoffman. These four legends will be joined by Alan Trammell and Jack Morris in an induction class rivaled by few others in terms of talent and character. Each player undoubtedly had their own unique career and personality, but also continues to make a lasting impact on their respective fanbases and the overall game to this day.

Each year, the BBWAA collectively votes on choice candidates for the honor with final inductees receiving 75 percent of the vote. However, a separate Modern Era Committee, formed by the MLB, attempts to find any potential reputable candidates who may have slipped through the cracks since the first vote in 1936. Thus, Alan Trammell and Jack Morris joined the class for their significant contributions to the game throughout the 70s and 80s, despite having failed the BBWAA’s ballot standards for years. This year’s Modern Era ballot seemed to particularly highlight the 70s and 80s decades, a move potentially emphasizing the achievements of players during a time before the prevalence of steroids.

Especially with the inclusion of performance-enhancing drug users on the ballot, the voting process tends to draw particular scrutiny as of late. Both all-time home run leader Barry Bonds and 7-time Cy Young winner Roger Clemens missed out on the honor by slim margins. In this way, the selection committee has persisted in their statement against rule breakers, continuing to disallow confirmed PED-using players into the Hall. However, there are still players that many would argue have the credentials and the character to join the Hall of Fame despite the committee’s reluctance to accept them.

In recent years, the BBWAA has followed particular statistical analytics, mainly Wins Above Replacement to determine the quality of the player, along with character, reputation, and award considerations. WAR only became popular in recent years after the Oakland Athletics organization first developed the tool to identify talent under heavy financial stresses. Essentially, a program compares annual statistics and production of individual players with a convoluted average MLB player at that specific position. The final result is then purely the number of wins that the player contributed to their team. This comparison then allows programs like the BBWAA to properly determine the efficiency and true value of a player to the team. On account of the BBWAA’s usage of WAR, many popular players miss out on the Hall because of the statistic’s ability to see past societal, media, and human influence. These unfortunate cases are commonly referred to as “snubs.”

One of these snubs, Edgar Martinez, a pillar in the Seattle Mariners organization for years, missed out on the vote by less than 5 percent. Similarly, Mike Mussina, a long-time starting pitcher for the Yankees and Orioles, failed to receive the 75 percent standard, despite his 270 career wins and 82.7 aggregate WAR. Rumors of induction also surrounded first-year, flashy shortstop Omar Vizquel for his elite defense, highlight reel plays, and lengthy career. However, none of these players ever won a World Series, potentially signifying a desire on the committee’s part for players with lasting legacies across the league, not just in their individual fanbases. Vizquel, many have argued, is a textbook example of WAR’s power, looking past the stellar defensive plays and pure athleticism to see the actual statistical benefit of the player’s influence and career. Nevertheless, each player has 15 years of voting to attempt to make the Hall of Fame, beginning five years after their retirement, meaning that both still have some time to make it in the coming years.

That being said, the ballot will continue to receive more qualified and equally valid candidates as they become eligible in the coming years. To name a few, the all-time leader in saves, Mariano Rivera, and the late Roy Halladay top the first-years on the ballot next year. On top of these newcomers, many believe that the BBWAA voters have trended towards leniency for PED-using players, meaning that they could have an even greater chance and draw even more votes away from these long-tenured players on the ballot. With usually only about four retirees receiving the highest honor in baseball each year, the likelihood of making it into the Hall of Fame unfortunately appears bleaker and bleaker for these borderline cases.

This year’s class though, without a doubt deserves the highest congratulations for their achievements throughout the years both on and off the field. Chipper Jones, a career-long Atlanta Braves third baseman, led the vote with an astounding 97.2 percent, on account of his dedication to the Braves organization, his achievements as one of the greatest third basemen of all-time, and an 85 career WAR. Although few ever doubted Chipper’s place in the Hall, there is an unfortunate belief amongst some BBWAA voters that no inductee deserves the fabled 100 percent vote from all ballots. Thus, a few voters every year vote against shoo-in candidates in spite of the system and the elusive 100 percent honor.

The two sluggers in the class, Vladimir Guerrero and Jim Thome, each received 92.9 and 89.9 percent respectively. The speedy Guerrero joined the esteemed “30-30 club” multiple years after amounting 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases, a rarity in baseball for requiring both immense physical strength and agility as well. Local Philadelphia Phillies and Cleveland Indians legend Thome, on the other hand, sits at eighth all-time in home runs, and even more notably, succeeded in a time when most power hitters used PEDs. This trend seems to again highlight the dignified nature of Thome’s career successes, along the likes of Frank Thomas, Guerrero, Ken Griffey Jr. and other substance-free super sluggers in recent years.

Arguably the most surprising of the elected members was San Diego Padres closer Trevor Hoffman, who managed to make it into the Hall, despite the BBWAA’s neglect of closers in general. Since the significance of the closer role did not really come into play until the 70s, few reside in baseball’s hallowed annals and until recently the Hall of Fame as well. However, Hoffman did sit second to Mariano Rivera’s save record with 601, not only an impressive accomplishment in its own right, but also paving the way for Rivera’s prospective induction next year. Furthermore, Hoffman played for the Padres organization, who have never won a World Series, potentially exonerating him from the BBWAA’s stingy parameters around awards and league legacy.

Finally, the Modern Era committee inductees, Alan Trammell and Jack Morris both made it into the Hall of Fame after receiving the necessary 75 percent minimum from a much smaller committee of 16 experts on baseball during their era. Each won the World Series at least once, with Trammell playing for the Detroit Tigers his entire career and Morris proving himself as one of the most durable and consistent pitchers of his time while mostly a Tiger as well. Both played under legendary Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson in their tenure in Detroit, paying homage to the sustained success and continued legacy of the organization during that time. As the Modern Era committee transitions between eras and purposes, it will be interesting to see how the legacies of these two individual players holds up against the credentials of other timeless inductees.

All six inductees of the class will formally be inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer in Cooperstown, N.Y. Next winter the BBWAA will meet again to determine the next class at length. With this honor, each man is enshrined as one of the greatest in his craft, as a ballplayer, a representative of the game, and a first-class man in his own right. It is an honor bestowed upon few but recognized by many.

Revisiting Luke Heimlich’s fall from grace

in Op-Eds/Sports by

For a moment, imagine you are really good at baseball. Like really, really good. In fact, imagine that you are so good, that one of the best programs in college baseball has offered you a scholarship to come play at their institution. Now imagine being the best player on this team, which is now the best team in the country. Life seems pretty great then, right?

Now imagine losing all the glory, seemingly overnight.

If this is your story, your name is probably Luke Heimlich. The junior pitcher at Oregon State University was the centerpiece of one of the most unfortunate stories in college sports history that blew up earlier this June.

Heimlich attended Puyallup High School, a school with a strong baseball program near Tacoma, Wash. After being named Washington’s Gatorade Player of the Year and Louisville Slugger All-American, Heimlich took his talents to Corvallis, Or. to play for the 2006 and 2007 College World Series Champion Oregon State Beavers.

After putting together two solid, but not spectacular, seasons at Oregon State, Heimlich broke out his junior season and was undoubtedly the best pitcher in college baseball. He went 11-1 and led the entire NCAA Division I in ERA by being the only pitcher to give up less than a single earned run per nine innings. He did not surrender a homerun, while striking out a whopping 128 batters in only 118 ⅓  innings of work.

To top things off, not only was Heimlich the best pitcher in college baseball, but he also played on the best team. The Beavers finished 56-6 overall while destroying Pac-12 opponents by going 27-3 in conference play. After week six, top polls unanimously placed the Beavers as the number one team in the country.

Oregon State was a shoo-in for the College World Series and Heimlich was predicted to be a first round draft pick by many MLB analysts and scouts. However, with only several days before both the Draft and the College World Series, a news story surfaced, saying that Heimlich was a felon convicted of sexually molesting a six-year-old girl when he was younger.

As a juvenile, Heimlich pleaded guilty to one count of sexual misconduct in 2011. As punishment, Heimlich was sentenced to probation for two years, during which time he participated in a sex offender program for two years. Additionally, he participated in personalized counseling. Heimlich has since been classified as the lowest level of sexual predator with the least likelihood of reoffending.

Once the news broke, many questioned how this would affect Heimlich’s draft stock, as many teams would be cautious to draft such a player with this type of history. Furthermore, some questioned the legitimacy of his status as a student-athlete, noting that both Oregon State University and the NCAA should ban felons, particularly those who have committed sexual crimes, from competing in intercollegiate athletics.

Heimlich pulled himself from the roster in order to divert attention away from the Beavers while they were competing for an NCAA championship. The team ended up being swept by LSU in the semifinals. As most expected, Heimlich went from a sure-fire first rounder to being undrafted in 2017.

The unfortunate part of this story is that everyone loses. Heimlich’s actions and any action similar to his is without question utterly unacceptable, and completely reprehensible. However, some might argue that Heimlich has been over-punished at this point, particularly as a first time offender. Some in the sports world believe that his actions of the past should not prevent him from pursuing his passion on the baseball field. Others argue that this type of crime should never merit a second chance, and that Heimlich’s pursuit of a baseball career should’ve been ended the minute he committed this heinous act.

I guess the issue is much broader. There is now a question that we as a society may need to answer more clearly: where do we draw the line? At what point do we give second chances, particularly to those who have committed crimes like Heimlich? We have already decided that sexual predators cannot have jobs working with young children, like being a school teacher or a bus drivers. The Adam Walsh Child and Protection Safety Act has placed heavy restrictions on registered sex offenders. But as we now see, the pursuit of becoming a professional athlete may need to be added to the list.

There is absolutely no justification for his actions. Sexual misconduct of any kind to any degree is beyond unacceptable and should always be punished accordingly. However, is there any room for forgiveness? This isn’t a question for me or for you, but for society as a whole.

How far can we punish Luke Heimlich before we become no better than he? Is there any grace we can grant Heimlich, seeing that he committed this crime as a minor?

Sexual misconduct of any nature is disgusting. The lives of two individuals in our world have been permanently changed, and not for the better. I think we can all hope that from here on out, both Heimlich and the victim can lead normal, quality lives as properly functioning members of society. I also hope that we as a society can more clearly define the restrictions we place on the lives of people like Luke Heimlich.

 

This is an op-ed. For the Phoenix’s policy on op-eds, please visit swarthmorephoenix.com/policies

MLB Postseason Preview

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October is here, and with it comes the MLB playoffs, one of the most exciting times of the year. Last year saw an instant classic play out in the World Series as the Cubs rallied from a 3-1 deficit to win the World Series in extra innings in Game 7 and shattered a 108-year streak without a World Series title, the longest in history. Will the Cubs repeat as World Series champions? Will the Red Sox win for the fourth time since 2000? Will the Indians snap their 68-year streak without a title, the current longest active streak?  

The American League:

Cleveland Indians:

The Indians, last year’s AL pennant winners, come surging into the postseason possessing the second best record in baseball, and tops in the American League. In one of the best storylines of this season, the Indians won a record 22 games in a row between August and September, cementing their spot atop the AL Central and all of baseball in the eyes of many. Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor led an offense that ranked in the top 10 in the MLB in most hitting stats (second in On Base Percentage and Slugging). The Cleveland pitching rotation was buoyed by breakout performances from Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco as they posted the best Earned Run Average and strikeouts of any team, along with the ever dominant trio of starter Corey Kluber, reliever Andrew Miller, and closer Cody Allen. With a pitching staff that deep, Cleveland looks poised to make a deep run in October, and they stand only 11 wins away from breaking that 68-year title drought.

Houston Astros:

Jose Altuve has been the one of two or three of the best players in baseball this year. The leading candidate for American League MVP has led a team that until two years ago no one thought anything of, a team that only a few years ago had a payroll less than Alex Rodriguez’s salary, to an AL West top finish and a second seed in the playoffs. Dallas Keuchel, whose workload has been carefully managed all year, has put in a fantastic season a year removed from a wholly mediocre one (admittedly, he won the Cy Young Award the season before). It could be the year for the Astros to win their first-ever World Series title. They face off against the Red Sox in the AL Divisional Series, beginning today.

Boston Red Sox:

There were high hopes placed on the Red Sox coming into this season as they traded for Chris Sale to bolster their rotation that already contained $217 million man David Price, now pitching out of the bullpen, and 2016 Cy Young winner Rick Porcello. And while Sale has been masterful all season, leading the MLB in strikeouts, Price has struggled through injury while Porcello had a performance similar to, and maybe worse than, Dallas Keuchel’s last season. However, Drew Pomeranz, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Doug Fister have all emerged as solid members of the rotation, and that has helped to carry the Red Sox into the postseason as they’ve struggled with inconsistent hitting. They lost David Ortiz to retirement, and Mookie Betts has regressed from last year’s MVP-caliber season, but Andrew Benintendi has become a young star in left field, and the Red Sox will hope to get hot as they face off as against the Astros.

New York Yankees:

No one thought the “Baby Bombers” would be this good this soon. But Aaron Judge has looked incredible at times, shattering the rookie record for home runs in a season. Luis Severino posted a sub-3.00 ERA in his first full season in the majors. Gary Sanchez posted a solid year after tearing up the majors with 20 home runs in 53 games last season. The Yankees have one of the best farm systems in baseball. They have star power coming out of the bullpen in Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman, maybe the best closer since Mariano Rivera. They’re poised to win now and win later, and they look to get that started off against the Indians after beating the Twins Tuesday night.

The National League:

Los Angeles Dodgers:

When the Dodgers were 91-36, all anyone could talk about was whether or not they’d break the all-time record for wins. Those folks who said no were surely in for a treat as the Dodgers went 1-16 over their next few games before a 12-6 “rebound” to finish the season 104-58, well below the record. Clayton Kershaw looks as good as ever, and they picked up Yu Darvish, the former Rangers ace, midseason. Alex Wood has been a breakout star in the rotation while Cody Bellinger has lit up opposing pitchers almost as well as Aaron Judge. The Dodgers have the roster to advance to the World Series. But do they have the composure to go all the way?

Washington Nationals:

Max Scherzer is one of the best pitchers in baseball. He’s the kind of guy you wish you could start everyday. He’s also the guy who could potentially make no starts as he deals with an injured hamstring. The Nationals do still have Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, who have put up stellar numbers this season in the rotation. Add to that the hitting abilities of Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Anthony Rendon, and Ryan Zimmerman, and you’ve got yourself a potential juggernaut in this postseason. Can they come together to win Dusty Baker his first title as a manager?

Chicago Cubs:

The reigning World Series champs got off to a rough start. The roster put together by wunderkind Theo Epstein was still intact, but they just couldn’t find their spark. Kyle Schwarber had a rough year after his World Series heroics. Jake Arrieta struggled with his command and velocity through the first few months before turning it around in spectacular fashion after the All-Star break. Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo, and reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant still combined to hit 90+ home runs. This is a team with a very high ceiling, but also a pretty low floor. Their chances to repeat as world champions all depends on which of those teams takes the field against the Nationals come Friday.

Arizona Diamondbacks:

Greinke rebounded for a 17-win season with a 3.20 ERA to help propel the Diamondbacks to the first wildcard spot in the National League. Diamondbacks GM Mike Hazen should be applauded for his midseason acquisition of J.D. Martinez, who hit 29 home runs in only 62 games in the desert. Paul Goldschmidt remains a perennial MVP candidate with a .297/.404/.563 slash line to go along with 36 home runs and 120 RBIs. Robbie Ray looks like he might just be the next Randy Johnson (just a tad bit shorter). The Diamondbacks have great depth which might just give them an edge in the playoffs.

Colorado Rockies:

It’s rare for a team to have two legitimate MVP candidates in the way the Rockies have Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon, though if it’s going to happen anywhere, it’ll happen in Colorado (the high altitude has notoriously helped hitters pad their stats). And it’s even rarer for a Rockies team to have a top 10 ERA as a staff when they spend 81 games at Coors Field. But manager Bud Black has done an exceptional job managing his pitching staff to do just that. The Rockies had only one pitcher, German Marquez, throw more than 150 innings, but they made it work with no real ace. They’ll have to travel to Arizona to face the Diamondbacks Wednesday night.

My Predictions:

The Indians advance out of the American League after beating the Yankees and the Red Sox in the Championship Series. The Nationals beat the Cubs and then use their hitting prowess to overpower the Dodgers in the Championship Series. The Indians beat the Nationals in six games to claim their first World Series title in 68 years after last year’s heartbreaking loss.

2017 MLB Preview: Part 3

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Welcome to the third and final installment of the Swarthmore Phoenix 2017 MLB Season preview. With three articles devoted to the story, the MLB season preview has become the second-most covered topic by our newspaper, coming in just behind the endless coverage of divestment. There are ten more teams left to preview. Among these ten are guaranteed flops and potential World Series contenders.

Oakland Athletics: The Oakland A’s play in one of the worst stadiums in the MLB. The visitor’s clubhouse is often flooded due to issues with the stadium’s sewage pipelines. The sewage in the clubhouse matched the A’s performance on the field last year, as they finished a disappointing 69-93. The A’s had an unusually busy free-agency period and signed over $30 million in new deals with Santiago Castilla, Matt Joyce, Trevor Plouffe, and Rajai Davis. These signings were especially questionable as they don’t seem to make the team any more competitive, and may block the growth of top prospects such as Third Baseman Ryon Healy. On the mound, the A’s hope that Sonny Gray can return to the dominance he showed in his first three seasons instead of pitching like he did in 2016, where he had a 5.69 ERA. At the plate, the A’s hope that Khris Davis can repeat his output from last year and post another 40 home run season. Like the Yankees, the A’s are caught between rebuilding and competing now. Unlike the Yankees, the A’s do not have a particularly good team or farm system, so their problem is that neither option seems possible for them at the moment. The A’s will probably miss the playoffs once again this season.

Pittsburgh Pirates: If I were writing this preview at the start of the season, I would’ve mentioned how excited I was to see how Starling Marte adjusts to manning center field for the first time in the MLB this season. Going into the season, he was a sleeper MVP candidate, and at the very least, I would’ve expected him to have an All-Star season. However, Marte was suspended 80 games for violating the league’s Performance-Enhancing Drugs policy, so we won’t be seeing too much of him this season. Without Marte, the Pirates will be especially reliant on an Andrew McCutchen rebound year if they hope to make the playoffs this season. McCutchen was third in the MLB in WAR from 2012-2015, but his productivity fell off a cliff last year. He posted a -0.7 WAR last season, which made him a below-replacement level player. On the mound, the Pirates hope for more magic from their pitching coach Ray Searage, who has revitalized many lost careers over the past few years. Their rotation will include Gerrit Cole, who has shown flashes of the potential that once made him the top pitching prospect in baseball. Pittsburgh also has a deep farm system that includes top prospects such as pitcher Tyler Glasnow and outfielder Austin Meadows. Overall, the Marte suspension reduces the slim chances the Pirates had at a Wild Card spot, and it will be a tough road for Pittsburgh if they hope to make the playoffs.

San Diego Padres: The Padres are barely an MLB team. Their opening day roster had a combined payroll of $31 million, which is less than what David Price will make this season. They’re probably going to be the worst team in the MLB this year. However, they have some bright spots. First Baseman Wil Myers is returning from a breakout year where he made his first All-Star team, and outfielder Hunter Renfroe is going to compete with Dansby Swanson for the NL Rookie of the Year award. They provide a solid 3, 4 combination in the lineup, and at 26 and 25 years old respectively, they should make up the Padres core for the foreseeable future. On the mound, Carter Capps will likely anchor the bullpen, throwing 100 mph despite having one of the weirdest deliveries I have ever seen. Perhaps the most interesting thing for the Padres going into next season is the fact that they are planning on using Christian Bethancourt as a backup catcher, outfielder, and relief pitcher this year. Overall, the Padres will likely lose a lot of games, but they will be fun to watch.

San Francisco Giants: It is not an even year, so the Giants will probably miss the playoff this year. So far in the 2010s, the Giants have missed the playoffs in 2011, 2013, and 2015, but won World Series in 2010, 2012, and 2014. In all reality, the Giants do actually have a good team on paper this year. Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto are a good top of the rotation pair. Buster Posey is one of the top catchers in the MLB, and Hunter Pence is a solid player despite looking like a weird mix of a mad scientist and crackhead. However, despite the signing of closer Mark Melancon, the Giants bullpen is still a disaster and will probably cause them to lose the majority of their one and two-run games once again this season. In addition, Bumgarner recently hurt himself riding a dirt bike, and it looks like he will miss the next six to eight starts, which will make the Giants play catch-up for the rest of the season. Overall, a talented roster will probably underperform and the Giants will likely miss the playoffs this year.

Seattle Mariners: The Mariners may be a trendy pick to sneak into the playoffs in the AL this year. They have a solid core of second baseman Robinson Cano, designated hitter Nelson Cruz and third baseman Kyle Seager. Felix Hernandez has been one of the best pitchers in the AL for what seems like forever now, and he finally has found another stud to help him at the top of the rotation in lefty James Paxton. Out of the pen, Edwin Diaz improved his slider and looks like he could be among the best relief pitchers in baseball this season. The Mariners were extremely busy in the offseason acquiring numerous players such as outfielder Jarrod Dyson, who will assume the leadoff spot for Seattle this year. Despite the fact the fair-weather Seattle fans are too busy claiming diehard fandom of the Seahawks to be aware of the fact their city has an MLB team, Seattle may make a run at the second AL Wild Card slot this season.

St. Louis Cardinals: The Cardinals missed the playoffs last season for the first time since 2010. However, they made one of the biggest offseason signings with outfielder Dexter Fowler, who will fill the leadoff slot in the lineup this year. Matt Carpenter made the transition in the offseason from third base to first base, which the Cardinals hope will result in more offensive output from their top hitter. Yadier Molina is still the best defensive catcher and provides a big boost behind the plate to an already deep pitching staff that includes Adam Wainwright’s unhittable curveball and “little Pedro” Carlos Martinez, both of whom are likely All-Star selections. The Cardinals won’t win the NL Central (the Cubs are too good), but they look like they will compete for one of the NL’s Wild Card spots this year.

Tampa Bay Rays: Last season was the worst year for Tampa Bay since they were called the Devil Rays. This season does not look much better. The Rays will likely once again deal with rumors all season about proposed trades involving third baseman Evan Longoria and pitcher Chris Archer. However, they likely won’t move these two key members of their core, since they’re still signed to relatively cheap contracts and the Rays do not have a lot of money to work with elsewhere. There are a lot of unknowns for Tampa Bay this year, like shortstop Matt Duffy, who has looked good in brief MLB appearances between injuries. In the bullpen, Alex Colome is set at closer, and the rest of the roles are up for grabs. Catcher Wilson Ramos is still rehabbing a knee injury and likely will not return behind the plate this year, instead filling the DH role in the second half of the season. Overall, the Rays look like they’ll be left behind in a tough AL East.

Texas Rangers: The Rangers won 95 games last year, which at first looks like an extremely successful season. However, they only outscored their opponents by a total of 8 runs over the course of the year, which means they heavily overperformed with clutch hitting, an unsustainable statistic. This year’s roster looks to be much improved from the previous season’s team. Yu Darvish has returned from an arm injury, and when he’s healthy, he is among the top arms in the AL. However, he’s been hurt so much recently that he has not pitched enough innings to qualify for a full season since 2013. Martin Perez and Andrew Cashner are also injury-members of the starting rotation, which looks to be the lower-calorie version of the Met’s rotation. At the plate, the Rangers added outfielder Carlos Gomez midseason last year to lead off an already talented lineup that includes underrated future Hall-of-Fame member Adrian Beltre and alternate-universe heavyweight boxing champion Rougned Odor. If the Rangers’ pitching staff can remain healthy, they will be in good shape in the AL West division race.

Toronto Blue Jays: The Blue Jays somehow accomplish the impossible and make me dislike Canadians, since this team is so obnoxious. Their fanbase is even worse. For the past two years, Blue Jays fans have disrupted playoff games by throwing beer cans on the field while the game is still in action, and two years ago, one of the cans hit a baby. This may be why I thought the best part of last year’s MLB regular season was when Rougned Odor of the Texas Rangers clocked Toronto outfielder Jose Bautista and knocked his sunglasses clear off of his face. One redeeming quality for the Blue Jays is the fact that they employ Josh Donaldson, who turned himself into a perennial MVP candidate by following the groundbreaking hitting advice to actually try to hit the ball in the air instead of hitting weak backside ground balls, a philosophy which surely disappoints youth baseball coaches everywhere. The rest of the lineup is solid, with bright spots that include shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, catcher Russell Martin and DH Kendrys Morales. However, they lost a key contributor in Edwin Encarnacion, who led the AL in RBIs in 2016. On the mound, they have World Baseball Classic MVP Marcus Stroman, who hopes to transfer his WBC success into his first ace-level MLB season. The Blue Jays have a good lineup, but a tough AL East will likely not be theirs to win, so their playoff hopes will rest on their ability to get the second Wild Card.

Washington Nationals: If all goes right, the Nationals could be a scary team to face in October this year. Their success will start with outfielder Bryce Harper, whose productivity steeply dropped from his phenomenal 2015 MVP season. Also at the plate, Daniel Murphy continues an odd mid-career resurgence that saw him lead the NL in OPS and finish second in NL MVP voting behind Kris Bryant. The Nationals also have last year’s NL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, who is absolutely unhittable when he is on. Sophomore shortstop Trea Turner will look to continue his rookie success as a leadoff hitter for the Nationals. The biggest issue will be the rest of the rotation behind Scherzer. Stephen Strasburg has shown flashes of brilliance but has been on the disabled list eight times in his seven-year career and has only pitched one full season. Another bad sign for Washington is that manager Dusty Baker has lost nine straight potential series-clinching playoff games. If Harper comes back hot and Strasburg can remain relatively injury-free, the Nationals will be one of the few teams able to challenge the Cubs for the NL pennant.

2017 MLB Preview Part II

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After two weeks of baseball, it is tempting to immediately jump to conclusions about how well teams are going to do this season. However, as anyone who has taken a statistics class could tell you, conclusions based on small sample sizes are often inaccurate. For example, Tuffy Rhodes started off the 1993 season with a bang, as he hit three home runs for the Cubs on Opening Day and led them to a big first win. He proceeded to hit only five more home runs that year and hit .234 for the season, regressing to his normal status as a below-average MLB player. Basically, I am saying that it is still totally acceptable for me to be writing a season preview. Let’s take a look at the next 10 teams in part two of the three part series.

Houston Astros: Despite the fact they switched leagues over four years ago, I still get confused every time I see the Astros listed as an American League West team. As a result of the move, interleague play begins at the start of the season, and I irrationally hate the Astros for messing up the schedule like this. One redeeming factor for the Astros is that they have one of the coolest players in baseball with Jose Altuve, who is one of the best hitters in baseball despite being 5’5”. They added veteran talent at the plate with Designated Hitter Carlos Beltran and Catcher Brian McCann, and they will bolster an offense that Fangraphs, a leading MLB statistics website, projects to lead the MLB with 4.96 runs per game. They also have the best bullpen in the league based on Wins Above Replacement (WAR), which will bode well if and when the Astros play in close postseason games. Overall, the Astros are a good dark horse World Series pick.

Kansas City Royals: The Royals were a great anti-sabermetrics example in 2014 and 2015, where they made back-to-back World Series appearances despite projection models predicting sub-.500 seasons each year. Manager Ned Yost will sacrifice bunt, aggressively steal, and instruct his players to swing early in the count and not look for walks, all strategies that directly oppose those of “Moneyball”. The team’s fortunes reverted back to matching their mediocre statistical projections last year, and this year does not look like it will be any better. They lost ace pitcher Yordano Ventura to a tragic car accident in the Dominican Republic, and didn’t make any big offseason moves to bolster their roster. The Royals may benefit from a weak AL Central, but they don’t seem likely to make the playoffs this year.

Los Angeles Dodgers: The Dodgers once again have the highest payroll in baseball, which gives them a heavy advantage to start the year. They have Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher in baseball, who will probably win another Cy Young award as long as he stays healthy. On the mound, the Dodgers also have Julio Urias, who makes me feel really bad about my own baseball abilities considering he is a year older than me and already a solid MLB pitcher. At the plate, they have an MVP candidate in Corey Seager, who is only 24 years old and already one of the best shortstops in the league. L.A. also has Yasiel Puig, who will either be garbage like he has the past few years or will dominate with his raw talent like he did in 2014. The Dodgers will probably be good, but their World Series chances depend heavily on how burned out Kershaw gets this year, and also on him hopefully not turning into a mortal during the playoffs as he has almost every other time he’s pitched in the postseason.

Los Angeles Angels: I feel bad for Mike Trout. He’s the best player in baseball, but won’t receive nearly as much attention as he should because the Angels are trash. He is the all-time leader in WAR through a player’s age 24 season, and has won two AL MVP awards and probably deserves at least two more. Despite his Hall-of-Fame talent, the only national advertising I have seen for Trout has been on the boxes of microwaveable soft pretzels. Beyond Trout, the Angels really don’t have much to help him out. Albert Pujols, who was at one point the best player in all of my baseball video games, is just average now, but will be paid $28 million for what will likely be around 1.0 WAR. His sudden drop in productivity does seem to lend credibility to the conspiracy theory that he’s really five years older than he claims. Garrett Richards will either be at the All-Star game or rehabbing his elbow from Tommy John surgery when we get to July. Unfortunately for Trout and for all baseball fans, I think this will be another year that the postseason will not feature baseball’s best player.

Miami Marlins: The Marlins faced a lot of adversity in 2016, especially after their ace pitcher Jose Fernandez was killed in a boating accident. The team has some bright spots going into this season, but none shine brighter than Giancarlo Stanton. Stanton is the best raw power hitter in baseball. He had half of the ten hardest-hit balls last year based on Statcast exit velocity, and he’s demonstrated his power with mammoth dingers in games and in the home run derby, which he won last season. Stanton’s biggest issue in the past has been durability, as he’s only played more than 125 games once over the past five seasons. Beyond Stanton, the Marlins have a lot of potential in the outfield with Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich, who both have a lot of upside and are already among the NL’s better outfielders. The biggest question mark will be pitching, as the Marlins return a rotation with a 4.70 ERA, which puts them near the bottom of the NL. Miami has potential, but will need some luck, as they will be dealing with one of the better divisions in baseball.

Milwaukee Brewers: The Brewers haven’t made the playoffs since 2011, and this doesn’t look to be the year they break their streak. Ryan Braun is the only remaining star from that team. He’s likely going to give the Brewers another solid season. The rest of the roster is filled out with young talent with high upsides. Jonathan Villar hit 19 home runs and stole 62 bases last year, and looks to build on that success this year at second base. Junior Guerra, who once went five years without an MLB contract but now features one of the filthiest splitters in the league, leads the pitching rotation. The future looks bright for Milwaukee, especially due to their top-three farm system, but this doesn’t appear to be their year.

Minnesota Twins: The Twins were the worst team in baseball last year, losing 103 games. They probably won’t pull off a worst-to-first run this year. They still look to be building for a future that does look promising, but does not look like it will be realized anytime soon. Top prospect Byron Buxton finally started hitting well in his September call-up at the end of last season. Miguel Sano also had a great rookie season two years ago, but regressed last year. If these two play to their potential, the Twins will be scary in the middle of the order. Joe Mauer can still be a solid contributor if he stays healthy. Out of the bullpen, Craig Breslow reinvented his delivery and looked great in Spring Training. Another pitcher to watch is Jose Berrios, who was dominant in Triple-A last season, but was shelled in his 58 major league innings. The Twins probably won’t be good, but they won’t be the worst team in the MLB for two seasons in a row.

New York Mets: The Mets may have the scariest starting rotation in the MLB. That rotation carried them to the World Series two years ago, but they faltered last year due to injuries and the fact they had to face Madison Bumgarner in an elimination game in the postseason. If the rotation stays healthy, no team will be able to compete with a rotation of Noah Syndergaard, Jacob DeGrom, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz, and Zach Wheeler. However, in baseball, arm surgeries are not sure fixes, and many pitchers never regain their pre-injury abilities. Statistically, with four pitchers coming off surgeries, at least one of their stud arms will have some problems. On the offensive side of the ball, the Mets are lead by outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, king of fancy cars and riding horses. If everything goes well and injuries are avoided, the Mets look like they’ll once again make the postseason and challenge the Cubs in the NLCS.

New York Yankees: One of the weirdest developments across the MLB is the fact that the Yankees actually have a decent farm system. Most baseball fans are used to the Yankees just relying on absurdly high payrolls and big-time free agent signings rather than actually developing talent. Unfortunately, for pretty much any sane person, the Yankees may be good this year. Gary Sanchez went on a tear in the final third of the season and finished second in AL Rookie of the Year voting. The Yankees signed Aroldis Chapman to the largest relief pitcher contract in baseball history over the offseason, apparently deciding that they needed him again after trading him away last July. The Yankees are in a weird half-rebuilding, half-trying-to-win state, and we’ll likely see which direction they decide to go in once we reach July and see what their record is at the trade deadline.

Philadelphia Phillies: The Phillies are projected to finish second-to-last in the NL this season. I looked up their roster and the first player I recognized was Clay Buchholz, which is not a good thing. Buchholz is infuriatingly inconsistent, as any Red Sox fan will tell you. I’m sure that he’ll finally pitch up to his potential now that he left Boston, but even if he does, the Phillies have an extreme lack of developed talent at the big league level. They may be good by the time I graduate Swarthmore, as they have the makings of a Big Three in their starting rotation with youngsters Vince Velasquez, Jerad Eickhoff, and Aaron Nola. 2013 number one draft pick Mark Appel may finally make his MLB debut this year, but there’s no reason to rush his development. Overall, the 2019 Phillies look like they’ll begin to compete with the Mets and Nationals for NL East dominance.

Stay tuned for part three of the MLB season preview, where my predictions will probably start to be influenced by actual production on the field this season. Until then, enjoy April baseball and all of the absurdities that it brings, and, more importantly, the faint hope of your team bringing home a World Series title this year.

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