If baseball carries any lesson from year to year, it's that few of us really know anything about what's going to happen in October before the first pitch is thrown in March. But with seven more weeks to go before Opening Day, predictions are all baseball fans have -- and the hunger for detailed projections has probably never been higher.
Projections are essentially a full-time job for those who run the most prominent systems like Steamer, ZiPS and PECOTA, with all of them using a version of the wins above replacement tool that MLB's front offices employ when building their rosters. Pretty much all projection systems are conservative by nature (regression to the mean has stood the test of time) and while that means they generally fall in line with one another, this year's early crop yielded some noteworthy diversions. The biggest caveat is obvious: Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Craig Kimbrel, Dallas Keuchel and many other free agents haven't signed yet, and so these projections will need to be updated before Opening Day. But in the meantime, here's a look at the three most divisive clubs in the eyes of FanGraphs' and Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projections, which, as it turns out, were three clubs that already figured to attract a lot of attention this season:
FanGraphs projection: 79-83 (5th)
PECOTA: 88-74 (1st)
FanGraphs also had the Crew under .500 entering last season, though its readership was quick to offer more optimism. The readers turned out to be right, of course, though likely few foresaw 96 wins and a National League Central Divison title.
PECOTA, which projected 84 wins for Milwaukee last year, has come around and believes the Brewers will repeat as division champs. One figure that stands out right away: the Brewers' projected 33.8 fielding runs above average (FRAA) mark on defense, second only to the Indians across baseball. A lot of that can be attributed to new catcher Yasmani Grandal (22.5 FRAA), baseball's top framer last year, who would turn out to be a bargain if he contributes that kind of defense again (along with his projected 20 home runs) on a one-year, $18.25 million contract. Reigning NL MVP Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain are no slouches in the outfield, either, and Milwaukee's three-headed monster of Josh Hader, Jeremy Jeffress and Corey Knebel will be back in the bullpen.
While PECOTA is bullish on Milwaukee's run prevention, FanGraphs doesn't see it the same way. The Brewers' Achilles heel, as many predicted last year, could be their rotation. Milwaukee's best starter by ERA, in FanGraphs' eyes, will be Jimmy Nelson at 4.21 -- and Nelson is still working his way back from major right shoulder surgery. FanGraphs has that rotation ranked as the Majors' eighth-worst -- just above the Marlins and below the Rangers -- meaning that group will have to buck expectations for a second straight year. Perhaps Grandal will be a major difference-maker behind the plate.
FanGraphs: 97-65 (1st)
PECOTA: 89-73 (2nd)
A projection system will rarely ever hand a team 100 wins, let alone the 108 games Boston claimed last year, and so FanGraphs' 97-win prediction for the defending champs is about as bullish as it gets. Fangraphs' system pegs Boston's returning rotation of Chris Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello, Nathan Eovaldi and Eduardo Rodriguez as MLB's second-best by WAR behind Cleveland, while also believing that the Red Sox's relentless offensive weapons like AL MVP Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez and Xander Bogaerts will help them score a league-best 5.12 runs per game. Combine those two factors with what might be baseball's best defensive outfield, and FanGraphs believes the Red Sox will have the game's best run differential by a good margin.
Meanwhile, it's not the worst thing for Boston fans that the more pessimistic projection still has their club hosting the AL Wild Card Game. But finishing six games behind the Yankees would be a bitter pill to swallow, nonetheless. PECOTA believes the Red Sox will have a top-five defense, but it's surprisingly bearish on the club's offense, believing it will score less runs than the Yankees, Astros, Indians and Angels in the AL. The system thinks Martinez (projected .299/.381/.565 with 36 homers) and Betts (.302/.385/.520, 27 homers) will be monsters again, but doesn't believe any other Boston hitter will be better than 14 percent above league average. Boston overcame what was believed to be its biggest weakness in its bullpen last October, but PECOTA isn't optimistic that unit can continue to excel over a full season; current closer Matt Barnes is the only 1-WAR pitcher in the group. It's a much different story, of course, if Boston ends up bringing Kimbrel back into the fold.
FanGraphs: 88-74 (1st)
PECOTA: 81-81 (T-3rd)
FanGraphs has the Cubs dropping off by six games from 2018, but that would still be enough to win the NL Central by its projections. The system thinks Kris Bryant will shake off last year's injuries and rediscover some of his slugging to return to a 6-WAR player, and believes Javier Báez will still be a 3-WAR player after some natural regression from a career year. There's still some uncertainty regarding Addison Russell, whom FanGraphs still believes will be close to a 2-WAR shortstop despite a suspension that will keep him out until May. It also predicts a solid, if somewhat limited, season from Yu Darvish (10.2 K/9, 3.76 ERA, 2.6 WAR).
But a large swath of Cubs fans have grown restless with the team's quiet offseason, and PECOTA believes that inactivity may have helped the Brewers and rival Cardinals pass them by. Defense was Chicago's calling card during its run to the 2016 World Series title, but PECOTA projects the Cubs to be below average with the gloves this year. It's also much more conservative in regards to Bryant, giving him a .272/.376/.473 slash line that's almost exactly in line with last year's disappointing campaign. But PECOTA's most pessimistic about the Cubs on the mound; no starter is projected to have an ERA below 3.50, and there's legitimate concern about the health of closer Brandon Morrow (PECOTA pegs Morrow for a 3.95 ERA and 0.3 WAR across 41 innings).
The NL Central has a claim as the game's most competitive division, and the fact that projections can't agree on two of its powerhouses suggest it should be a wide-open race all summer long.