Matthews: AL Forecast: Red Sox, Astros and Twins Are The Picks

BOB’S AMERICAN LEAGUE FORECAST...

RED SOX, TWINS AND ASTROS ARE THE PICKS

I’ve been touting the New York Yankees to win the American League East for months but injuries to the pitching staff have inspired me to revise my opinion.

1—Boston (108-54) – The defending world champions were a near-flawless team last year but they enter this season with a suspect bullpen...The potent lineup includes AL MVP Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez, Andrew Benintendi, Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. Eduardo Nunez and Brock Holt will platoon at second base while Dustin Pedroia continues a slow recovery from left knee surgery...Catchers Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart are the catchers...Chris Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello, Eduardo Rodriguez and Nathan Eovaldiare a deeper and healthier starting rotation than the Yankees will have to at least start the season...A suspect bullpen will try to get by minus departed closer Craig Kimbrel and Joe Kelly.

2—New York Yankees (98-64) – The 2018 Yankees set a MLB record with 267 home runs and they think they can hit even more this season. The muscular lineup includes Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Gary Sanchez, Miguel Andujar, Gleyber Torres, Aaron Hicks, platooning first basemen Greg Bird and Luke Voit, Brett Gardner, Troy Tulowitzki and eventually shortstop Didi Gregorius. Scoring runs will not be a problem...The loaded bullpen includes Aroldis Chapman, Chad Green, Zack Britton, Tommy Kahnle and – presumably -- Dellin Betances, who’ll miss the start of the season...The starting rotation will be minus Luis Severino for at least the first month. Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, J.A. Happ and perhaps CC Sabathia will try to pick up the slack.

3—Tampa Bay (86-76) – The Rays can’t match the Red Sox or Yankees in payroll or overall talent, but they’re a resourceful bunch and often give fits to better teams. They were 90-72 last season (including 51-30 at home) for manager Kevin Cash and will try to do even better with an underrated lineup including Kevin Kiermaier, Tommy Pham, Matt Duffy, Joey Wendle, Austin Meadows, Yandy Diaz, Ji-Man Choi and Mike Zunino. Shortstop Willy Adames is a budding star...2018 AL Cy Young award-winner Blake Snell and import Charlie Morton are the top starting pitchers. Cash is a master of “the opener: pitching strategy – starting relief pitchers and replacing them after the first inning...Used a MLB-record 23 rookies in 2018 and the farm system’s .604 winning percentage was baseball’s best.

4—Toronto (72-90) – The rebuilding Blue Jays have some solid veteran players, including Justin Smoak, Kendrys Morales, Kevin Pillar and Randall Grichuk, but not enough of them to challenge the Red Sox or Yankees. Toronto was 16-41 versus the Yankees, Boston and Tampa Bay last season...Young building blocks include shortstop Lourdes Gurriel Jr., catcher Danny Jansen and third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr., rated baseball’s top hitting prospect...Home attendance dropped 27.4 percent last season and probably won’t be much better in 2019.

5—Baltimore (53-109) – The Boreioles are a very bad team – probably the worst in MLB. The O’s used a team-record 56 players last season and most belonged in the minors...Only four years left to boo first baseman Chris Davis and the rest of his $161-million contract...The starting rotation had a MLB-worst 5.48 ERA last season and could be worse this year.

AL CENTRAL

1—Minnesota (90-72) – I’m playing a hunch and taking a flyer on the Twins to win the division. I think they have a tremendous upside – maybe I’m wrong – with a batch of young players who could be on the verge of putting it all together: starting pitchers Jose Berrios and Kyle Gibson, infielders Jorge Polanco and Miguel Sano, and outfielders Byson Buxton, Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler...They’ll be complemented by veteran imports DH Nelson Cruz, 1B C.J. Cron and second baseman Jonathan Schoop...A key will be the rest of the starting rotation (including Jake Odorizzi and Michael Pineda and maybe Fernando Romero and eventually Stephen Gonsalves...The bullpen has some big arms and might surprise...Joe Mauer retired and Rocco Baldelli replaces manager Paul Molitor...Top prospects shortstop Royce Lewis and slugger Alex Kirilloff could be ready by 2021.

2—Cleveland (89-73) – One reason I’m picking the Twins to surprise and win the division is that I believe the Indians are overrated...They have arguably the AL’s best starting pitching (featuring Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco) and maybe the baseball’s best left side of the infield (SS Francisco Lindor and 3B Jose Ramirez)...Closer Brad Hand is solid but the rest of the bullpen is suspect...The young outfielders have much to prove...Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, Michael Brantley, Yonder Alonso, Yan Gomes, Lonnie Chisenhall, Yandy Diaz and Andrew Miller are gone, mostly to pare payroll...Cleveland has won the division the past three years by 8, 17 and 13 games. This year figures to be more challenging.

The rest of the AL Central is awful.

3--Chicago White Sox (71-91) – The Chisox at least have more young talent than Detroit and Kansas City, even if most of it isn’t ready to help right now...Started 9-27 last season and never recovered...30-51 at home and 32-49 on the road...Struck out in the bidding for free agent Manny Machado this winter...Veteran Jose Abreu and ex-Red Wing Daniel Palka provide some pop...Hitters had a MLB-record 1,594 strikeouts last season...Hoping for more from 2B Yoan Moncada and SS Tim Anderson...Good luck to the pitching coach...Broadcaster Hawk Harrelson called it quits after 29 seasons. Good timing.

4—Detroit (66-96) – Ron Gardenhire is the new manager after back-to-back 98-loss seasons...Future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera says he’s healthy again and ready to return to form. He’d better because Tigers fans don’t have much else to look forward to...The pitching staff is a mess. 2016 AL Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer will miss the season. Highly-touted lefthander Carlos Rondon has yet to blossom.. Promising righthanders Casey Mize and Matt Manning won’t be rushed...Former decent Red Wing Niko Goodrum is one of this team’s best players...On a positive note, right fielder Nicholas Castellanos led MLB hitters with a .381 batting average against left-handed pitching.

5 – Kansas City (59-103) –The Royals won the 2015 World Series with speed, defense, timely hitting and a shutdown bullpen. That’s all long gone...58-104 in 2018, including a miserable 26-55 on the road...The team’s best player, catcher Salvador Perez, is out for the season after Tommy John surgery...Underrated second baseman Whit Merrifield is a bright spot. He led MLB in hits and stolen bases last season. Shortstop Adalberto Mondesi has promise and new center fielder Billy Hamilton has speed...That’s about it. No wonder home attendance is down 38.5 percent since 2015.

AL WEST

Houston (101-61) –The Astros have a formidable offense: CF George Springer, 3B Alex Bregman, 2B Jose Altuve, SS Carlos Correa, LF Michael Brantley, 1B Yuli Gurriel, DH Tyler White, RF Josh Reddick, C Robinson Chirinos. Most of them can run and field, too...The potential problem is starting pitching depth behind Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole. Free agents Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton are gone and Lance McCullers Jr., had Tommy John surgery. Collin McHugh to the rescue out of the bullpen. But who else will start? Josh James might surprise...The loaded bullpen includes Roberto Osuna, ex-Red Wing Ryan Pressly, Hector Rondon, Chris Devenski and Brad Peacock...A spectacular 57-24 road record last season. That was a clue to how tough this team can be – even after taking a few hits in the starting rotation.

2—Oakland (95-67) – The Athletics have been consistently surprising and resourceful for some time now, but they’ve become a really good team.. They were 97-65 last season (50-31 home and 47-34 away) and it was no fluke...The heart of the lineup is DH/OF Khris Davis, 3B Matt Chapman and 1B Matt Olson. Other dangerous bats include outfielders Stephen Piscotty, Nick Martini, Ramon Laureano, Chad Pinder and Nark Canha, shortstop Marcus Semien and new second baseman Jurickson Profar...Manager Bob Melvin is a master at spotting his players...Power sinkerballer Blake Treinen is a top-shelf closer in a deep bullpen...Starting pitching is suspect but Melvin also is a proponent of “the opener” strategy, starting a reliever to work one or two innings. They’re hoping Mike Fiers can solidify the rotation.

3 – Los Angeles Angels (85-77) – One of these days, the Angels might surround superstar Mike Trout with enough talent to reach a World Series. They should be better than last season’s 80-82 but aren’t ready to win the division...Manager Mike Scioscia is gone after 19 seasons, replaced by Brad Ausmus...The impressive lineup includes Trout, Shohei Ohtani, Justin Upton, Andrelton Simmons, Kole Calhoun and fading catcher Jonathan Lucroy and more-fading Albert Pujols (no longer can run and has to try to play first base because Ohtani is the DH). Newcomers Tommy La Stella and Justin Bour beefed up a weak bench...Pitching is the problem. Ohtani and Garrett Richards won’t pitch after Tommy John surgeries. Imports Matt Harvey and Trevor Cahill are big hopes to bolster the rotation. The bullpen isn’t any better.

4—Seattle (75-87). The Mariners haven’t made the postseason since 2001, the longest active drought for any team in the four major team sports in North America. That futility streak is sure to continue this season...During the offseason, top starting pitcher James Paxton, closer Edwin Diaz, DH Nelson Cruz, 2B Robinson Cano, SS Jean Segura and C Mike Zunino were lost. Seattle figures to come closer to 70 wins than last season’s 89 wins...The remaining top players include OF Mitch Haniger, 3B Kyle Seager and 2B Dee Gordon. Big boppers Edwin Encarnacion and Jay Bruce might have something left. There are several soft spots in the lineup and the bench is weak...Japanese import Yusei Kikuchi and Marco Gonzales figure to be the two top starting pitchers as Felix Hernandez continues his descent. The rebuilt bullpen figures to struggle minus Diaz, Alex Colome, Juan Nicasio and James Pazos...The Mariners led MLB with 57 one-run games in 2018 (36-21 record) and were 14-1 in extra innings. Don’t expect repeats.

5—Texas (70-92). New manager Chris Woodward is in and future Hall of Famer 3B Adrian Beltre is out (retired)...Decent veteran talent includes SS Elvis Andrus, 2B Rougned Odor, DH Shin-Soo Choo and slugger/whiffer Joey Gallo (41 HRs in 2017 and 40 HRs in 2018)...Hoping for more from 3B Patrick Wisdom, CF Delino DeShields and 1B Ronald Guzman...Good luck with a starting rotation including Mike Minor, Lance Lynn, Edinson Volquez, Drew Smylyand Yohander Mendez...The bullpen isn’t any better after closer Jose Leclerc, who might not have many save chances.

HANDICAPPING A FEW RETIREMENTS

Colorful and controversial UFC star Conor McGregor shocked mixed martial arts fans early Tuesday by tweeting his retirement. Forgive me for not buying it. I think he’ll be back.

Here are my probabilities on a few retirements from pro sports:

Conor McGregor – 85 percent probability to return to the Octogon...He has retired before (April 2016) and was fighting a few months later...He tweeted his retirement only hours after appearing on Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show and saying he was negotiating for his next fight in July...UFC President Dana White said he believes McGregor’s retirement is legitimate and “totally makes sense” because McGregor is rich and his Proper 12 whiskey company “is KILLIN it.”...I wonder if McGregor had a bottle of whiskey before he made his tweet...He’s an egomaniac and loves the bright lights and attention too much to stay on the sidelines for long.

Rob Gronkowski -- 30 percent probability to return to the New England Patriots. He has options – Hollywood and pro wrestling. But if the Patriots need him late in the 2019 season and buddy Tom Brady asks him to return for the stretch run, I can see it happening if he is bored and in shape.

Joe Mauer – 2 percent probability to return to ther Minnesota Twins. If the Twins are as good as I think they’ll be this season, they’ll be battling for the AL Central title or at least a wild-card berth. Mauer still can hit and his veteran leadership could help put his hometown team over the top.

PROJECTING THE NUMBERS FOR McCOY/GORE 1-2 PUNCH

The 2019 Buffalo Bills – at least for now – expect to have a 1-2 rushing punch of LeSean McCoy and Frank Gore.

They’d have the most combined rushing yards of any teammates in NFL history: 25,354 yards (Gore 14,748; McCoy 10,606). I assume they’d also be the oldest RB duo (Gore turns 36 on May 14; McCoy turns 31 on July 12).

The Bills ranked 9th in the NFL in rushing (124 yards per game) and 31st in passing (175 yards per game) last season. Buffalo had 468 runs and 499 pass attempts.

I assume the Bills will continue to run the ball more than most NFL teams because defense is the team’s strength. Trying to control the clock on the ground and winning relatively low-scoring games seems to be a prudent strategy.

I expect quarterback Josh Allen’s completion percentage will improve slightly this season – partly because he’ll be more experienced and mostly because he’ll have better wide receivers. For the sake of his health, he probably won’t run as much as he did last season (89 carries for 631 yards and 8 TDs in 12 games).

Just for fun, here are my projections for Slash (McCoy) and Gore (Smash) this season – assuming they both stay reasonably healthy):

McCoy – 185 carries for 815 yards (4.41 yards per carry) + 41 catches for 340 yards

Gore – 140 carries for 560 yards (4.00 yards per carry) + 10 catches for 120 yards.

Total -- 325 carries for 1,375 yards; 4.23 yards per carry) + 51 catches for 460 yards.

HOW THE NOT-TOO-SHARP SABRES MEASURE UP IN THE NHL

After Tuesday night’s listless 4-0 loss to the lowly Ottawa Senators, the Buffalo Sabres have only 14 wins in their last 51 games. Since their most recent road victory January 29, the Sabres have lost 13 straight road games by a cumulative score of 50-21.

Buffalo won’t make the Stanley Cup playoffs for the eighth straight season. The following list of how the Sabres measure up in the 30-team National League suggests why:

Points – 71 (t26th)

Goals scored per game – 2.66 (24th)

Fewest goals allowed per game – 3.25 (23rd)

Power play percentage – 18.0 (18th)

Penalty-killing percentage – 80.6 (15th)

Shots on goal per game – 32.7 (10th)

Fewest shots on goal allowed per game – 33.1 (24th)

Faceoff win percentage – 48.0 (27th)

Most penalty minutes per game – 7.07 (28th -- are they gentlemanly or not tough enough?

Win % when lead after first period -- .643 (24th)

Win % when lead after second period -- .727 (29th).

Wining % when score first -- .605 (24th).

SHORT SHOTS

The NFL chose Green Bay at Chicago to kick off this NFL season Thursday, September 5, because they’ll help celebrate the NFL’s 100th season as the league’s oldest rivalry. May people are saying a much more attractive game would’ve been the Los Angeles Rams at the Cleveland Browns.

xxxThere are unconfirmed reports that Syracuse U. junior guard Tyus Battle will enter this year’s NBA draft. If true, I don’t blame him. The Orange aren’t likely to be a top team in the ACC next season and he can make big money playing somewhere – just maybe not in the NBA. ESPN’s Top 100 NBA Draft Prospects lists Battle at No. 70. The two-round draft has 60 picks.

xxxESPN polled 31 of the network’s “leading baseball experts” on which team will win the 2019 World Series: Astros 15, Yankees 7, Red Sox 5, A’s 3, Indians 1.

xxxTwo veteran Major League Baseball writers have died on the job during spring training. Long-time Newsday/MLB.com New York Mets writer Marty Noble died Sunday. He was 70. Veteran writer Nick Cafardo, who covered the Red Sox for the Boston Globe, died last month.

xxxKentucky Wildcats pass rusher Josh Allen says he’s the “best overall player” in the 2019 NFL college draft.Buffalo Bills fans must be hoping he won’t be the NFL’s best Josh Allen.

xxxSix popular Rochester Knighthawks veterans traded during this season by owner/GM Curt Styres appear headed for the National Lacrosse League playoffs: Scott Campbell with Saskatchewan,Dan Dawson and Paul Dawson with San Diego, Ian Llord and Cory Vitarelli with Colorado and Joe Resetarits with New England).

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO...

Wednesday, March 27

Brandon Nimmo 26...Matt Harvey 30...Buster Posey 32...Dustin Byfuglien 34...Michael Cuddyer 40...Danny Fortson 43...Chike Okeafor 43...Bobby Lalonde 47...Tom Hammonds 52...Randall Cunningham 56...Ed Pinckney 56...Bart Connor 61...Doug Wilkerson 72. Mariah Carey 49 and Quentin Taratino 56 are invited to the birthday party.

Thursday, March 28

Justin Jackson 24...Derek Carr 28...NaVarro Bowman 31...Geno Atkins 31...Mark Melancon 34...Stan Wawrinka 34...Luke Walton 39...Keith Tkachuk 47...Wesley Person 48...Jason Garrett 53...Byron Scott 58...Harvey Glance 62...Rick Barry 75...Kevin Loughery 79. Lady Gage 33 and Reba McEntire 64 are invited to the birthday party.

ON THIS DATE IN SPORTS...

March 27

88 years ago (1931), New York Giants manager John McGraw said night baseball would not catch on...80 years ago (1939), Oregon beat Ohio State 46-33 for the first NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship...42 years ago (1977), Chris Evert won her fourth and final WTA Tour championship...41 years ago (1978), Kentucky beat Duke 94-86 to win the 40th NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship.

March 28

69 years ago (1950), City College of New York became the first college basketball team to win the NCAA and NIT titles in the same year...56 years ago (1963), the New York Titans became the New York Jets...47 years ago (1972), Wilt Chamberlain played in his last pro basketball game...14 years ago (2005), 48-year-old Fred Funk became the oldest winner of the PGA Players Championship.

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