Three NFL Teams Who Will Beat Expectations

Posted: 08/15/2018 by levcohen in Football

We’re deep into the dog days of August, which means the NFL season is quickly approaching. It’s time to get into football projection mode, and I’m starting with my list of the teams most likely to outperform their preseason over/under win totals (courtesy of Bovada). I generally remind myself of a few things in preseason, and those help inform my predictions. Here’re a few of the guidelines I use:

  • Discount free agency-related hype: Remember the 2011 Eagles, who Vince Young labelled the “Dream Team”? That team signed Young (just a backup quarterback) along with big names like Nnamdi Asmougha, Jason Babin, Evan Mathis, and Cullen Jenkins. They also traded for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. They were supposed to be a leading Super Bowl contender, with flashy names like the ones just mentioned joining the star-studded offense (Vick, McCoy, Jackson, Maclin, etc.). Instead, they finished just 8-8, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2007. And that was far from the only time that a team made a bunch of big free agent signings only to fall way short of expectations. Generally speaking, it’s not a great idea to expect free agents to fill a bunch of holes.
  • Don’t look at last season’s records: It’s tempting to use last year’s standings as a starting point for projections. If a team went 10-6 and improved their roster, after all, how could one expect them to win fewer than 10 games? But while that’s a decent strategy in, say, basketball, in football the sample sizes are far too small to base projections that way. Point differential is a more predictive tool, as it is in every sport.
  • Don’t pay so much attention to preseason strength of schedule: Things change quickly in football. Lots of teams who we expect to be good turn out not to be, and vice versa. There’s no doubt that SOS is a factor — it’s a big reason that teams playing last-place schedules make the jump into the playoffs relatively frequently — but it’s hard to know exactly how before the season. I consider SOS when making projections but less than I used to.

Vegas knows all of this too, but a lot of people betting probably don’t, especially when it comes to the public favorites (Dallas, New England, Pittsburgh, etc.). Without further ado, here are the three teams most likely to outperform expectations:

Indianapolis Colts (Over 6.5): This is obviously a bet on Andrew Luck’s health, because the Colts were brutal last season without their quarterback. They went 4-12 and finished 31st in Football Outsiders’ DVOA (29th in offense and 27th in defense), ahead of only Cleveland. But they finally have their quarterback healthy this year. Luck’s back after battling through a nagging shoulder injury for about a year and a half, and his health held up in the first preseason game. I think this 6.5 number probably bakes in a few missed games for Luck, as it probably should. But I’m relatively bullish on Luck’s health. The offensive line, notoriously horrible throughout Luck’s career (and again last year with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback), is much improved. Left tackle Anthony Castonzo is one of the best and most consistent tackles in the league and will continue to anchor the line. Center Ryan Kelly, a first round pick in 2016, struggled through injury last year but is healthy now and should be in for a much improved season. The rest of the line? All new. The Colts clearly recognized that guard was their biggest weakness, because they spent their first two picks on guards Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith, both of whom were dominant college players (for Notre Dame and Auburn respectively). Nelson, I think, could be a Pro-Bowl caliber player immediately. And the new right tackle is ex-Bear Austin Howard, who doesn’t fill me with confidence but should be an upgrade over the revolving door the Colts have had at the position in recent years. The fact that there has been so much turnover and that the line will include two rookies and a guy (Howard) signed in May does concern me, but it should be improved over the injury-plagued o-line that had 10 players play more than 140 snaps last season.

The offense as a whole should take a big step forward with Luck back, the line improved, and ex-Eagles’ offensive coordinator Frank Reich stepping in as the head coach. T.Y. Hilton is in for a big season after he suffered through poor quarterback play last season, and I always thought that Ryan Grant was an underrated receiver in Washington, so I like him as the second receiver. The recent ACL tear to receiver Deon Cain, a sixth round draft pick who had been generating buzz, hurts, but I trust that Luck will make so-so weapons look better than they are.

Defensively, the improvement has to come from all the young talent. The Colts’ returning starting corners, Quincy Wilson, Kenny Moore II, and Nate Hairston, were all rookies last season, and it showed: they ranked 51st, 70th, and 107th among the 120 corners that played enough snaps to receive a full PFF grade. But corners often make a big jump between years one and two, which is clearly what the Colts are banking on. The team’s highest-potential defensive player is safety Malik Hooker, who flashed his potential in an injury-marred rookie season and should be in for a big year. The Colts were actually pretty good against the run last year, so the fact that the front seven is largely unchanged should give fans confidence. But they were dead last against the pass and will be relying upon big steps forward from all of their young secondary pieces. The Colts aren’t likely to rack up a ton of sacks or put much pressure on opposing quarterbacks, so the onus will be on the secondary.

It’s worth noting that Indy plays in what’s rapidly moved from being the easiest division in football to perhaps the toughest. Jacksonville made the AFC Championship game last year and could improve this year. Houston gets Deshaun Watson, J.J. Watt, and Whitney Mercilus back from injury. And Tennessee was a playoff team last year. All three of those teams are projected to win 8-9 games, per Bovada. So Indianapolis seems like the odd man out. But with a healthy Luck, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them catapult straight into the playoff race, especially with a seemingly forgiving schedule that sees them playing the AFC East and NFC East. I think we could easily get three playoff teams from the AFC South.

New Orleans Saints (Over 9.5): I think the Saints are really, really good. Everything indicates that they should be an elite team. They went 11-5 last year without getting good luck in close games (they were 1-3 in one-score games). Drew Brees is still one of the best quarterbacks in football, and he has a ton of weapons. Mark Ingram is suspended for the first four games, which could allow Alvin Kamara to make an even bigger impact out of the backfield. Kamara was famously effective last season (6.1 yards per carry, 10.2 yards per catch, 1554 total yards), and while those numbers are surely unsustainable, he’ll continue to be a game-changing threat in 2018. Michael Thomas is one of the most consistent receivers in football, and he and field-stretcher Ted Ginn are joined by some new receiving options in 2018, including ex-Bear Cameron Meredith and third round draft pick Tre’Quan Smith. Brees loves to spread the ball around and will have every chance in the world to do so this season. Then there’s the offensive line, which is both good and, crucially, the same as last year. At a position where continuity is so important, the Saints are returning all five starters, including healthy (for now) left tackle Terron Armstead. This offense finished second in offensive DVOA last year, and that was without a huge year from Brees. I expect the Saints to shift a little from the run-heavy unit they were last season to a more pass-heavy gameplan, which should help minimize the impact of the Kamara regression that coming. And while Brees is now 39, there’s no indication that he’s in any sort of decline.

The defense was the real story last year, the reason that the Saints, who had wasted year after year of stellar offensive performances, surged to 11-5. They jumped from 31st in defensive DVOA in 2016 to eighth last season. If the only play you watched last year was the Minnesota Miracle, the play that sent the Vikings past the Saints and embarrassed rookie safety Marcus Williams, you’d probably be surprised to hear that it was the rookies in the secondary — Williams and DROY Marshon Lattimore — who were the catalysts. Williams had the sixth best PFF rating among safeties, while Lattimore graded out as the seventh best corner. The Saints added ex-Eagle (and, actually, ex-Saint) Patrick Robinson, who’ll likely play slot cornerback and who was the sixth best cornerback in football last season. The secondary, once a weakness, is now a true strength. But New Orleans’s real defensive star is Cameron Jordan, a first-team All-Pro defensive end who was long the one good defensive player on the team. Jordan helped the Saints become a really good pass-rushing team, and they could be even better this year with first round pick Marcus Davenport (who many considered a reach at #14 overall) playing opposite Jordan. The Saints should continue to have one of the best pass defenses in the league. And in a pass-heavy league, that should overshadow the issues they have against the run. The Saints signed DeMario Davis from the Jets to play linebacker and help correct the weakness against the run, but I’m sure teams will continue to target what was the 23rd ranked DVOA run defense in 2017. But guess what? You’re probably not going to keep up with the Saints’ offense if you can’t move the ball through the air. I think the Saints are the best team in the NFC South and will cruise to double-digit wins again.

Cleveland Browns (Over 5.5): I picked the Browns in this space last year after they went 1-15 in 2016. Their over/under was 4.5 wins. They won zero. And yet… Here I am picking them again. Some of my rationale is the same as last year’s. Yet again, they got extremely unlucky, both in close games and in the turnover battle. Thanks largely to a lot of interceptions and fumbles from now-departed quarterback DeShone Kizer, they posted a -28 turnover margin last year. That was worst in the league by a mile. It’s hard to keep games close when you’re turning the ball over that much, and even when they did keep games close, they suffered bad luck (0-6 in one-score games). Last year, the main reasons I picked the Browns to beat the 4.5 win number were that I thought they couldn’t possibly be so unlucky again, that they had an incredibly easy schedule, and that I thought Hue Jackson would be a much better coach in his second season than he was in his first. It obviously didn’t work out. This year, though, there are other reasons to be (relatively) bullish on the Browns. The biggest one is the quarterback position. Gone is the dumpster fire that was Kizer last season. The new starter is Tyrod Taylor, one of the most underrated quarterbacks in football. Taylor somehow managed to drag a bad Bills team into the playoffs last year despite actually getting benched for no apparent reason for a game in the middle of the season. The Bills lost that game 54-24 to the Chargers, with Nathan Peterman throwing five interceptions on 14 passes. Back came Tyrod, and more wins soon followed. One thing Taylor doesn’t do is turn the football over. He through four interceptions last season and has never thrown more than six in a season. He has 33 combined fumbles and interceptions in his three-year run as a starting quarterback (44 games). Kizer had 31 in 15 games last season. So the quarterback play is going to be a lot better, and that’s before even considering that #1 overall pick Baker Mayfield may well take the job over in the middle of the season and run with it. I believe that Taylor will start the year at QB and play well enough to hold onto the job, so it’ll take good performances from Mayfield to take it away from him.

Taylor (and maybe eventually Mayfield) also has a whole lot of offensive pieces to work with. It seems nearly impossible for the 32nd ranked DVOA offense to have a solid offensive line, but the Browns do. They have a glaring weakness on the line with Joe Thomas now retired, but they have enough returning proven veterans — Joel Bitonio, J.C. Tretter, and Kevin Zeitler — to provide stability to a line that should at least be above-average. And they’ve completely made over their running back and receiving units. They have a lot of weapons now. Duke Johnson, one of the few guys who was actually there last season, might be the best pass-catching back in football. He easily led the Browns with 74 receptions and 693 yards last season. Carlos Hyde will likely replace Isaiah Crowell as the main rusher, although rookie Nick Chubb may give him a run for his money. That’s probably a lateral move. Tight end David Njoku was a first round pick in 2017 who had a quiet rookie season, but tight ends are notoriously slow to adapt to the NFL. He could be in for a big jump in his second year. And at wide receiver, the Browns could be adding not one but two Pro-Bowl caliber players. That’s if you count Josh Gordon, the unbelievably talented receiver who’s played 10 games since his stupendous 2013 season but who should (?) be fully available this season. He hasn’t showed up for camp yet this season, which is definitely concerning, but all reports indicate that there isn’t another suspension looming and that Gordon will be back on the field this season. The other addition is ex-Dolphin Jarvis Landry, who’s the perfect yang to Gordon’s yin. He’s more of a possession receiver than a deep threat, but he’s a darn good one: he led the NFL with 112 catches last season. I’m not personally a big fan of Jarvis and think that Gordon is the far bigger piece if healthy, but there’s no doubt that Landry’s an improvement. The offense won’t break any records, but it’s going to be much better than it was last season.

The defense may not improve as much, but it doesn’t have to. Cleveland actually had the 16th ranked DVOA defense last season, although it wasn’t always easy to see because the offense put them in such horrible situations. Myles Garrett, the #1 overall pick last year, is already a stud and clearly the key to the defense. But he’s not alone. Because the Browns have been bad for so long, they’ve been able to add a lot of highly touted, talented defenders to their roster. The latest is cornerback Denzel Ward, the #4 overall pick in this year’s draft. Ward will likely join free agents T.J. Carrie and E.J. Gaines in Cleveland’s revamped secondary, and both Carrie and Gaines are solid (and in the case of Gaines, maybe very good) players who should improve the pass defense (26th last year). Run defense is Cleveland’s strength. Defensive tackles Larry Ogunjobi and Trevon Coley are big boys and good run defenders. The linebacker core was solid last year and should be better this year with the addition of Mychal Kendricks, who’s had a lot of injury problems but who’s a good run stopper when healthy. Do I love the defense? No. But again, it finished 16th in DVOA last year. If that’s where it ends up this year, I’ll like the Browns’ chances at more than 5.5 wins.

I don’t expect all the new pieces to send the Browns to the playoffs, but I’m a lot more comfortable with the idea that they should win at least six games than I thought I would be after last season. I understand why people would be hesitant about backing the Browns after the last two seasons, but I think this is the year it starts to turn around.

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The MLB trade deadline is tomorrow, and over the last few days there have been a flurry of minor trades, most of which have been rentals for relief pitchers or infielders. As expected, the Orioles and Royals have continued to sell, with Baltimore reliever Brad Brach going to Atlanta and longtime power-hitting Kansas City third baseman Mike Moustakas joining Joakim Soria (another pre-deadline acquisition) in Milwaukee. The Mets and Twins dealt infielders Asdrubal Cabrera and Eduardo Escobar — both solid if unspectacular players — to Philadelphia and Arizona respectively. The Astros got a moderate boost to their bullpen with the acquisition of Twins’ reliever Ryan Pressly. None of these moves were as exciting as the Manny Machado trade or even the J.A. Happ or Cole Hamels deals, but all of them certainly help contending teams on the margins and are thus worth mentioning. Here are some other players who could move before tomorrow’s deadline:

Non-relievers:

Chris Archer, SP TB: There have been trade rumors about Chris Archer for as long as he’s been in the big leagues. That’s what it’s like to be a starting pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays, I guess. If the Rays thought they were contending before last weekend (and I don’t think they did), three straight losses at the hands of the Baltimore Orioles surely changed that. Archer, now 29-years-old, has ace-level stuff and is under team control through 2021 at a cheap $8 million per year. He has a 4.31 ERA this year, but that’s misleading, as his BABIP is a career high .343 and his FIP tells us he’s pitching well enough to have a mid-3s ERA. The Rays will surely ask for a lot, and they’ll likely get it. The fact that he’s under cheap team control for three more years means a lot more teams will be in the mix than have been for these rentals. Case-in-point: according to Jon Heyman, the 42-66 Padres are considered the favorites to land Archer. Their big-money signing of Eric Hosmer last offseason indicated that San Diego thinks they’re fairly close to contention. A trade for Archer would be another sign that they intend to make a playoff push next season. As for Tampa Bay, now is clearly the time to trade Archer. They’re not going anywhere this season, and Archer’s nearly 30 and has four straight 30+ start seasons under his belt.

Nick Castellanos, 3B/OF DET: There hasn’t been that much buzz about Castellanos, which I find surprising because I think he’s exactly the type of player I’d be targeting if I were a contending team. He’s a 26-year-old who’s under team control through next year, and he’s clearly proven at this point that he’s an above-average hitter. After hitting 26 homers last year and posting a .810 OPS, he’s hitting .292/.346/.496 (all career-highs) in 445 plate appearances this season. What’s the catch? Well, he’s pretty hopeless defensively, as he moved from third base, where he was poor, to right field, where he’s arguably been worse. But for a contending team looking for another bat but trying also to hold onto their top prospects, it’ll be hard to do better than Castellanos. I would probably bite the bullet and play him at third for the offensive upside he gives at a tough position to fill. I’m not sure there’s a perfect fit, but I think there’s a good chance he moves.

Adrian Beltre, 3B TEX: Beltre isn’t the player he used to be, but he’s a better-defending alternative to Castellanos for teams — think Atlanta — looking for a third baseman for the stretch run. Beltre’s numbers this year aren’t great, but he’s a year removed from hitting .312/.383/.532 and has been an extremely consistent hitter throughout his 30s. Now 39, it’s possible that he’s fallen off a cliff, but if I were a contending team I’d take a chance on him, largely because it likely wouldn’t cost much.

Dylan Bundy or Kevin Gausman, SPs BAL: These two Orioles starters are similar in more ways than the fact that they pitch for the same team. They’re both young pitchers who are under cheap team control for two (Gausman) or three (Bundy) years beyond this one. They both have good enough stuff that they were once top prospects, but neither has quite put it together. Gausman has a 4.43 ERA and a 4.58 FIP this year, while Bundy has a 4.53 ERA and a 5.00 FIP. The Orioles won’t give either away, but they may feel that Bundy and Gausman have exhausted their potential in Baltimore and that the team would be better off bottoming out completely and continuing to replenish the farm system. Like Archer, both of these starters would appeal to a variety of contending and non-contending teams.

Zack Wheeler, SP NYM: There’s been a little trade buzz circulating around aces Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, but odds are that if the Mets choose to trade a starting pitcher it’ll be Wheeler. Wheeler was once a top prospect who posted mid-3s ERAs in his first two seasons. But then he missed two full seasons due to injury and struggled in his return to the rotation last year. He then got off to a rocky start to this year and was left with a 5.40 ERA through nine starts. Since then, he’s turned it around, posting a 3.20 ERA and a 3.22 FIP in 11 starts with an average fastball velocity of over 96 miles per hour since the beginning of June. The Mets could look to take advantage of Wheeler’s success by trading the 28-year-old, who becomes a free agent after 2019. He’s coming off of six shutout innings, so it’s tough to imagine his value getting any higher than it is now before his contract runs out. There’s certainly no need for the Mets to trade him, but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone comes in with a good offer and New York decides to sell.

Brian Dozier, 2B MIN: Dozier’s the second rental to make this list. Like Beltre, he’s had a tough season. He’s hitting .226/.304/.404 and has been worth just 1.1 WAR a year after he put up a 5.0 win season and two years after a 6.2 WAR season. But Dozier’s always been a super streaky hitter, and he’s also been better after the all-star break in past years (116 career wRC+, as opposed to 103 before the break). There haven’t been any signs yet that he’s primed to break out of his season-long slump, but the fact that he’s a good defensive second baseman gives him a high floor. With Jason Kipnis having another poor year, the Indians look like a natural fit for Dozier as they look to keep up with Houston, the Yankees, and Boston in terms of talent accumulation.

Curtis Granderson, OF TOR: The market is relatively sparse as far as outfielders are concerned, which could mean that there’s some interest in Granderson, who at this point in his career is clearly a fourth outfielder for a good team. He can play all three outfield positions suitably and has posted a wRC+ between 105 and 114 in four of the last five years (the exception: 2015, 131). So he’s a solid hitter with defensive versatility who’s set to be a free agent after this year. He surely won’t cost much, and he should be on his way out of Toronto by tomorrow.

Relievers:

Craig Stammen and Kirby Yates, SD
Brad Ziegler, MIA
Keona Kela and Jake Diekman, TEX
Roberta Osuna, Tyler Clippard, and John Axford, TOR
Bud Norris, STL

I’m sure I’m missing a few relievers who’ll move at the deadline, but it seems nearly impossible to predict which of these relievers will get moved and which won’t. A handful of them are under cheap team control beyond this year, including Kela and both Padres pitchers. But while all of these pitchers have pitched well this season for non-contending teams, I wouldn’t expect anyone to be willing to pay a huge amount for any of them. The Orioles just traded reliever Brad Brach to the Braves for nothing except some international bonus pool money. Granted, these guys have all been pitching better this season than Brach, but they aren’t good enough to fetch more than the Jays got for Seunghwan Oh, who had a 2.68 ERA and good peripheral stats before getting dealt to the Rockies last week. And Toronto didn’t get much for Oh — just two prospects who weren’t even in Colorado’s top-20 heading into the season. That’s why I don’t think anyone’s getting more than a few B or C level prospects for these relievers.

The dreadful Baltimore Orioles, 29-74 at the time of this writing, kicked off baseball’s trade deadline season with trades of star shortstop/third baseman Manny Machado and closer Zach Britton. Both trades were no-brainers for the Orioles. I’m sure it hurt to trade Machado, their franchise cornerstone for the last half-decade. But the 26-year-old is set to become a free agent this offseason and will garner a much larger contract than the Orioles would have been willing to give. With their team, uh, let’s say far from contention this year, the only question is whether they waited too long to trade their star. The answer to that question is probably yes, but at least they got quantity (five decent prospects) if not quality (none of LA’s top prospects). Britton, too, is set to be a free agent this year, and the Orioles surely would have traded him sooner had he not been injured and then struggling. They took advantage of his eight straight scoreless innings before the trade and at least got something (a trio of pitching prospects, including 2015 #4 pick Dillon Tate, who’s struggled in his professional career) for him. I don’t think the Orioles are done making moves. They’ll look to trade outfielder Adam Jones, any relievers they can get value for, and probably second baseman Jonathan Schoop. Heck, even top starters Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman could move if the Orioles get a decent offer. O’s fans should probably cover their eyes for the rest of the season if, by some miracle, they haven’t already. But in a buyer’s market, the Orioles aren’t the only team looking to sell. J.A. Happ was traded from the Jays to the Yankees yesterday after Nathan Eovaldi moved from the Rays to the Red Sox, giving each AL East powerhouse another solid starter. I don’t think the Yankees or Red Sox are done making moves as each looks to win the division and avoid the dreaded win-or-go-home wildcard game. The same goes for a number of other contenders, who’ll all be looking to take advantage the relatively low asking prices for some pretty solid players, players around the same level as Happ, Britton, and Eovaldi. In this post, though I’m going to talk about three players who wouldn’t be so cheap.

To me, the most bizarre rumor is that the Nationals are considering trading Bryce Harper. Actually, I’ll rephrase: the only thing I’ve seen has been people suggesting that the Nationals trade Bryce Harper. Their rationale is an obvious one: the Manny Machado argument. Like Machado, Harper is set to be a free agent after this year. Like the Orioles, the Nationals are struggling this season. But their are a few obvious and significant differences. First of all, the Nats are far more likely to re-sign Harper after this season than the Orioles were to keep Machado. The player has said that he really enjoys playing in DC and the team is more willing to spend big bucks than the Orioles are. I find it hard to believe that the Nationals would take themselves out of the running months before free agency. Now, you could argue that they’d still be able to sign him after trading him away (a la the Yankees and Aroldis Chapman), but I think that’s unlikely. Second of all, the Nationals are still very much in the playoff race. Sure, they’ve been hugely disappointing this year and sit at 51-51, seven games out in the NL East and 4.5 out of the second wild card. But they have sixty games to bridge that gap and the talent to do so. Fangraphs estimates that they have a 52.8% chance to make the playoffs (34.8% to win the division and 17.9% to get a wild card). If that seems unlikely, just look at the Pirates, who have gone from 40-48 to squarely in the hunt in a matter of weeks. The Nats have the second easiest schedule in the NL going forward, just a tick behind the division leading Phillies. If I were the Nationals, I wouldn’t trade Bryce Harper unless I got a godfather offer. And guess what? Said offer isn’t coming. The Orioles got the most they could for Machado, a better player than Harper, and they failed to get a single blue-chip prospect. It’s clear that the Nationals are better off holding onto Harper and taking their chances down the stretch this year and then in free agency.

A rumor — actually, again probably more wild speculation than anything, but it’s still worth talking about — that makes a lot more sense to me is that the Cardinals are open to trading Matt Carpenter. Carpenter, of course, has been on an absolute tear for months now. In 274 plate appearances since May 16th, he’s hitting .340/.434/.728 with 25 doubles and 22 homers. That was punctuated by his 5-for-5, three homer, two double game against the Cubs last week. But it hasn’t been enough to propel the Cardinals into a playoff position. They’re 51-51 like the Nationals but have a significantly tougher schedule and less roster talent. They fired their manager a few weeks ago and could be looking to retool for next season. Now would be a great time to capitalize on Carpenter’s hot bat in a trade. Carpenter’s nearly 33-years-old and plays a below-average third base, which may necessitate a move back to first in the near future. His deal goes through 2020 (with a team option in 2020) at a reasonable price, something that will boost his trade value. The Cardinals can point to the fact that he’s been a consistent hitter since 2012 — .365+ OBP every year and 117-146 wRC+ (meaning 17% to 46% better than the average hitter) — and of course his stupendous numbers this year and tell teams that they’d be getting a hitter to plug into the middle of their lineup for the pennant race and then the next few years. They could get a good return for Carpenter at the apex of his trade value. Another thing that helps: both the Yankees and Red Sox, the two teams most likely to get into a bidding war with one another, would surely be in the market for Carpenter. The Yankees, who have a ton attractive prospects and young big-leaguers, are stacked pretty much everywhere but have holes at both corner infield positions. Carpenter would be a big short-term upgrade at third over Miguel Andujar, a top prospect who’s acquitted himself well this year but who is clearly worse than Carpenter both offensively and defensively. I’m sure the Cardinals would be interested in a trade centered around Carpenter and Andujar. The Red Sox, too, have holes in their infield, most glaringly at second base but also at third, where Rafael Devers has hit .242/.292/.415. I wouldn’t be surprised to see either team — but especially the Yankees — offer up a/multiple good young players for Carpenter, who leads the NL with 4.2 WAR. If they do, the Cardinals should capitalize.

The return the Marlins would get for J.T. Realmuto would likely dwarf a package for Harper or Carpenter. Realmuto is criminally underrated by casual fans. The 27-year-old is probably the best catcher in baseball, taking the mantle from a gradually declining Buster Posey. He’s having a breakout season this year, hitting .310/.369/.539 and adding plus defense. He’s been worth 3.7 WAR, putting him head and shoulders above Willson Contreras and Yasmani Grandal, who’re deadlocked at second at 2.6. And this is no fluke. It’s Realmuto’s third straight 3+ win season, and he leads all catchers in WAR since 2016. He’s entering the prime years of his career and blossoming into a true star player. He also has two years of arbitration left before he hits free agency, meaning he would appeal not just to teams hoping to contend this year but also to those retooling for 2019 and 2020. So why would the Marlins even want to trade him? Well, they’ll probably have to be wowed by an offer, but consider what they did last offseason. They traded Giancarlo Stanton to the Yankees, but more tellingly they also dealt their two other star outfielders, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich, to the Cardinals and Brewers respectively. Unlike Stanton and like Realmuto, Ozuna and Yelich are young — 27 and 26 respectively — players under cheap team control (Ozuna through 2019, Yelich through 2022 at an unbelievably team-friendly price). All of those trades were clear indications that the Marlins are playing not for 2018 or 2019 but for 2020 and beyond. They’ve modestly outperformed expectations this year but still sit at 44-60 with a -127 run differential, worst in the NL. They won’t be ready to contend while Realmuto is under cheap team control. So it wouldn’t be outrageous for them to consider trading their star catcher, especially during a year in which they can rightfully contend that he’s playing at close to an MVP level. While Realmuto’s been good in the past, he’s never been this good. His wRC+ is 142, 37 points better than this year and better even than any number he put up in the minors. If the Marlins think that this is just the next step in his progression and that he’s a 140 wRC+ player (for reference, since 2014 Bryce Harper, Jose Altuve, and Kris Bryant have are at 143, 142, and 141 wRC+) going forward, they should not only keep him but lock him up to a long-term contract. But if they think he’s in the middle of the best year of his career and won’t be a perennial fringe MVP candidate moving forward, they should strike while the iron is hot and continue to build their farm system.

I wouldn’t be shocked if any of these three players are traded, but I think it’s far more likely than not that they’ll stay on their current teams. There are plenty of less exciting players who are much more likely to be traded, and I’ll touch on some of those in my next post.

Finally, mercifully, the Kawhi Leonard trade has been completed and finalized. It seemed inevitable for months that Leonard would be traded, although I must admit that for most of that time I assumed his destination would be Los Angeles and LeBron’s Lakers. In the end, the Spurs didn’t do that badly in the trade. They got back DeMar DeRozan, who has three years left on his hefty contract, Jakob Poeltl, and a protected first round pick, thus opting to try to remain in contention rather than going the more conventional route, which would have meant choosing a package with more picks and without an established star like DeRozan. And it’s hard to blame them for that decision, because they’re the Spurs and have been the best organization in the NBA for decades. Remember that last year they went 47-35 almost entirely without the services of Leonard. Throw DeRozan into the mix (he and LaMarcus Aldridge will be a weird, potent, midrange-heavy duo) and you have a team that could challenge for a top-4 seed even in the loaded West. (Side note: boy is it going to be tough to project the middle of the West playoff race. Golden State and Houston are still the favorites, but check out the logjam of good teams after the Warriors and Rockets: Utah, OKC, San Antonio, the Lakers, Minnesota, Denver, Portland, New Orleans, maybe even the Clippers and Grizzlies.) I don’t love the Spurs’ roster, and I think people are underestimating how devastating the whole Kawhi saga could be for the franchise, but at least they’ll stay competitive and close to 50 wins. So bottom line is that for the Spurs, it was a reasonable trade but not a slam-dunk. For Toronto, meanwhile, it was a no-brainer. When it became clear that the Raptors were chasing Kawhi, I thought they’d have to send away a package including not only DeRozan but also young standout wing OG Anunoby and multiple first round picks. Instead, they got away with dealing just Poeltl, a solid (and apparently extremely intelligent) young big man but not someone you can rely on in the playoffs in today’s NBA, and a single pick. If worst comes to worst, Kawhi Leonard will be disinterested this season and then bolt to LA next offseason. But even then, the Raptors will have jumpstarted their rebuild by giving up DeRozan and the remaining money on his contract. This was the perfect time for the Raptors to go for it. They won 59 games last year before again falling in the playoffs to LeBron James. It may have seemed tempting to run back the DeRozan-Kyle Lowry team yet again with LeBron in the Western Conference, but I think Toronto realized that what they had wasn’t going to be enough. So they rolled the dice on a player who a year ago was considered a consensus top-three player. Is it a guarantee that he’ll be healthy enough  and in a good enough state of mind to return to those heights? No, of course not. But if he’s anywhere near the player he was, the Raptors are probably now Eastern Conference favorites. And it’s obviously worth taking a chance on that.

With Leonard off the table, I want to touch on a few other All-Star caliber players who could be on the move in the near future. Kevin Love will not be on this list because he recently signed a four-year, $120 million extension that locks him up through his age-33 season and, at least for the time being, takes him off the trade market. Love’s clearly going to have a lot more freedom in Cleveland’s post-LeBron world. I’m not sure he can quite reach the heights he reached in Minnesota, when at his peak he averaged 26 points and 13 rebounds per game. And there’s no way a team can contend with Love as its best player. But with Cleveland unlikely to contend at all over the next few years, the Love deal is a low risk proposition. He’s not good enough to have a huge impact on their draft pick, and the Cavs can still always trade him in the future if they really want to tank. For now, it seems that they prefer a more gradual fall from grace than an immediate bottoming out. Anyway, here are the two other star guard duos who, like Kyle Lowry and DeRozan in Toronto, could soon be broken up:

Damian Lillard and/or C.J. McCollum
John Wall and/or Bradley Beal: Both of these duos remind me a lot of the DeRozan-Lowry duo in Toronto. All six guards are All-Star caliber players. Lowry, Lillard, and Wall are the ball-dominant point guards, while DeRozan, McCollum, and Beal are the slightly less ball-dominant off guards who can really score the ball. Like DeRozan and Lowry, both of these sets of guards have led their teams to strong recent seasons. And like with DeRozan and Lowry, it seems unlikely that either guard duo will lead its team to anything close to a championship. First, Portland’s guards.

The Blazers went 49-33 last year, finishing third in the Western Conference. It was their fifth straight playoff appearance and their best year since LaMarcus Aldridge departed in free agency. Lillard made first team all-NBA while McCollum took a small step back from his career year in 2016-17 but still averaged upwards of 21 points per game on 44/40/84% shooting. He’s the rare high volume scorer who still manages to be efficient. Both guards are under contract for three more years, and both should remain in their primes (Lillard is 28 and McCollum 26). So the Blazers are good to go, right? Well, not exactly. They’re well over the salary cap this year and will be again next year as the huge contracts given to Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard continue to come back to bite them. They re-signed restricted free agent center Jusuf Nurkic to a deal that was probably above market value. So they have no room to improve their big three of Lillard, McCollum, and Nurkic. That leaves them with two choices: 1) keep both of their guards — clearly their two most valuable commodities — and hope the young players around them (Zach Collins, Anfernee Simons, Gary Trent, etc.) improve enough to make them more of a threat in the West; or 2) shop one or both guards. As good as Lillard and McCollum are offensively, they’re both real liabilities on the defensive end. They were exploited by Jrue Holiday and the Pelicans in the first round of the playoffs, a series that ended in a Pelicans sweep. It’s tough to win in the playoffs when your two best players are undersized (6’3″), ball-dominant guards. After the Blazers were a scorching +5.4 points per 100 possessions with both Lillard and McCollum on the court during the regular season (and -1.2 in all other situations), they were -11.1 in the same situations in the playoffs. It was the same story the year before against the Warriors, which is obviously very unsurprising. This is nothing against Lillard or McCollum, who are both clearly exceptional players, but the fact is that the Blazers need to make a move if they want to be serious title contenders. But guess what? You can say that about almost every team in the league, and Lillard and McCollum seem to like each other and play well together. Given the feel-good season the Blazers just had, it’s hard to see Portland trading one of them for below market value. But they both belong on this list simply because the Blazers are a good-but-not-great team in the Western Conference and it’s certain that one or two good-but-not-great Western Conference teams will disappoint. I have a feeling one of those teams is going to be the Blazers, at which point it’ll be really interesting to see what they do with their two franchise cornerstones.

Like Portland, Washington has had modest success over the last few seasons. They’ve made the playoffs three of the last four years and topped out at 49 wins in the 2016-17 season. They were devastatingly close to making the Eastern Conference Finals and seemed set to take advantage of the weak Eastern Conference last year. Instead, they struggled through a bumpy year that included another injury to John Wall and plenty of locker room discontent. They ended up winning 43 games and falling in the first round to the Raptors before attempting to reset their locker room in the offseason by trading away Marcin Gortat and signing noted good teammate… Dwight Howard (wait, what?). Howard joins Jeff Green and Austin Rivers as new additions. Nothing could possibly go wrong here, right? More worrying is the fact that there have been persistent rumors that Wall and Beal don’t exactly get on swimmingly. Those rumors fade when the Wizards win and intensify when they lose, of course, but I tend to believe that there’s some fire to go along with all the smoke. Like Portland, Washington has no room to maneuver. They’re $11 million into the luxury tax this year and are spending almost $108 million on four players (Wall, Beal, Otto Porter, and Ian Mahinmi) in the 2019-20 season. That leaves them over the cap even before they try to re-sign Kelly Oubre and Markieff Morris, two important pieces who will become free agents next summer.

I think Wall and Beal probably have a higher ceiling as a combination than McCollum and Lillard do. At his healthiest and most engaged, Wall is a defensive pest who’s also one of the best playmakers and finishers in transition in the NBA. The John Wall we saw down the stretch in 2016-17 was scary. But despite the fact that he’s not yet 28 and has made five straight All-Star games, I think it’s definitely worth being worried about Wall going forward. A 33% career three point shooter (although granted, he shot 37% last year. We’ll see if he can keep that up), Wall relies heavily upon his speed and explosiveness. But he has lingering injuries — including a knee problem which has forced him to have three procedures in the last two years. He played just 41 games last year and, given his style of play, seems sure to miss some more over the next few years. That’s why the extension the Wizards gave him makes me very nervous. The extension, which doesn’t even kick in until 2019-20, is for four years and $169 million. It’s hard to imagine the last few years of that deal going well, which leaves the Wizards with a decision: keep Wall and Beal and hope the ragtag bunch of role players they’ve assembled around them puts them in the hunt, trade Wall and make Beal their cornerstone, or trade Beal and go all-in with Wall. It seems unlikely that the Beal-Wall partnership is one that will last long. Beal is still blossoming into the player I think he’ll become, but it was telling how much better he played last year when he ran the point with Wall sidelined. The Wizards were actually a net positive with Beal and without Wall on the court. With that being said, Wall is still the heartbeat of the team, which is why I wouldn’t be shocked if they moved on from Beal instead. Like with Portland, I’d be very surprised if there’s any big move coming before the season. But if things play out like they did last year, I wouldn’t sleep on the possibility of a Wall or Beal trade.

Bottom line: The Raptors, Blazers, and Wizards are three clear examples of the impact the Warriors and LeBron James have had on the NBA. In a different league, maybe Lowry-DeRozan, McCollum-Lillard, or Wall-Beal would have a chance to win a title. But in this day and age, teams like Toronto, Portland, and Washington have a decision to make: are they content with the status quo and a chance at close to 50 wins per year, or do they want to go for broke? The Raptors made their decision, but only when a golden opportunity arose. It will be interesting to see whether Portland and Washington will have the chance and desire to do the same.

France won the World Cup yesterday. And if you were to just look at the final score (4-2), you would think that the French finally put together the attacking display that was reasonable to expect coming into the tournament given their attacking talent. But if you take a closer look, you’ll see that it was far from an offensive showcase from Les Bleus. They took just seven total shots and just one — a tight angle shot by Kylian Mbappe after some individual brilliance — from inside the box. Their first goal came from an own goal off a free kick that was won by Antoine Griezmann for a, to be diplomatic, soft foul (the more likely explanation is that Griezmann dived, and not for the first time in the World Cup either). The second came from a penalty kick after a handball that was initially not called but then — I think rightfully — called a foul after video review. I’ll defend the referee for his decision on this one, but I think we can all agree that it was a controversial call and that the French didn’t do anything particularly special to win the penalty. And the third and fourth goals came from shots from distance from two of France’s greatest stars, Paul Pogba and Mbappe. According to Michael Caley’s calculation of xG (short for expected goals), which measures expected goals based solely on shots (and thus ignores the penalty and the own goal), France should have scored just 0.3 goals based on the quality of their chances. The French scored four goals without having a single great chance.

Yesterday isn’t the first time that France has had this problem. It’s actually plagued them since before the World Cup. They scored just 18 goals in 10 qualifying matches, which was third most in their six team group (behind both Sweden and the Netherlands). In their friendly directly leading up to the World Cup, they slogged through a 1-1 tie with the United States. They then struggled to win an easy Group C. First came a 2-1 win over Australia in which their two goals were a controversial penalty and an own goal which came thanks to a great individual effort by Paul Pogba. Then came a 1-0 win over Peru, another relatively dreary game with a Mbappe goal ending up being the winner. They knew they needed just a point against Denmark in their final group stage game and thus went out and played the only scoreless game of the tournament (xG for that game: 0.3). They seemingly broke through offensively with a 4-3 win over Argentina, but again, it’s worth examining the goals. The first came after an incredible run by Mbappe was stopped with a foul in the box, leading to a Griezmann penalty. The second came on an unbelievable shot from outside the box by fullback Benjamin Pavard. And the third and fourth were both more a testament to Mbappe’s individual excellence than an overall successful offensive build-up. Then came the 2-0 win over Uruguay in the quarterfinals, another of the worst games of the tournament. One goal came from a gaffe from Uruguay goalkeeper Fernando Muslera on a Griezmann shot from far beyond the box. The other came from a Rafael Varane header off a free kick that came from near the edge of the box and probably should have been stopped by someone. And the semifinal against Belgium, which was supposed to be a free-flowing game between two exciting teams, ended 1-0 to France, although to be fair they had enough chances to score another goal or two. For those of you keeping track at home, France scored 14 total goals in seven World Cup games. Three of those were penalties, two more were own goals, and another was a complete flub by an opposing goalie. Three goals came on shots from outside the box, due solely to individual brilliance. That leaves just five goals that I would classify as neither lucky nor purely the result of a single player making a great play: Mbappe’s goal against Peru, both of his goals against Argentina, and the headers by Varane and Samuel Umtiti against Uruguay and Belgium respectively.

This may still seem surprising, especially after a four goal performance against Croatia, but the fact is that France won because of their defense. They’re very strong defensively, especially through the middle, with Barcelona’s Umtiti and Real Madrid’s Varane at centerback and Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante patrolling midfield. They shut down Belgium’s explosive attack. They gave up three goals to Argentina, but one of those was an unstoppable shot by Angel Di Maria and another came in the dying moments of a 4-2 game. And they gave up just one goal in the group stage, and that was on an Australia penalty. Shutouts against Belgium, Uruguay, Peru, and Denmark. One goal allowed to Australia — on a penalty. Three allowed to Argentina and two to Croatia, including one off a Hugo Lloris goalkeeping error that was as egregious as Muslera’s. That’s a pretty good defensive performance.

I understand that France’s style, their refusal to send an extra player forward on an attack, was by design. Coach Didier Deschamps wanted his France team to play conservatively and to pick its spots, and it did so. It obviously worked out in this tournament. But there’s a part of me that agrees with Belgium’s critique that France “played like Panama.” That’s partially because I want to see more exciting games but also because I really do believe that a team with France’s personnel should be able to do better than play for 1-0 win after 1-0 win. Heck, this is a team with enough offensive talent to leave players like Anthony Martial, Karim Benzema, Alexandre Lacazette, Kingsley Coman, and Adrien Rabiot out of the World Cup squad. It’s a team with the best young attacker in the world (Mbappe) and one of the most productive strikers (Griezmann). France oozes with talent on the wings — Ousmane Dembele, Thomas Lemar, Florian Thauvin — or would if any of those players had gotten off the bench for more than short cameos. They have arguably the best central midfielder in the world from an attacking standpoint (Pogba). Even their right back, Pavard, has the quality to score goals like the one against Argentina. I just would have liked to see a little more ambition from the team with the most talent in the world.

The main takeaway from this World Cup has seemed to be that France is set to be a dynasty. And look, I get it. Not only do they have the most talented team in the world, but they had the second youngest team in the World Cup (only Nigeria was younger). Mbappe is 19, Dembele and Lemar are 21 and 22, Pavard is 22, Umtiti and Varane are 24 and 25, Pogba is 25. Bayern’s Corentin Tolisso, whom I haven’t even mentioned yet in this post, is 23. And just three regular players are older than 27: goalie Hugo Lloris, midfielder Blaise Matuidi, and striker Olivier Giroud. So yes, I get the dynasty talk. But based on the way they played in this World Cup, I don’t see a period of dominance coming. They have all the talent in the world, but this doesn’t yet remind me of the Spanish team that ruled the world from 2008-2012. Dear France: show me more ambition and more goals in Euro 2020.

Throughout baseball’s history, the American League and National League have been treated as different entities. Unlike in basketball, football, or hockey, where teams from the two conferences play by the same rules and play interconference games regularly, both leagues have developed their own identities over time. They play by different rules — the AL plays with a designated hitter while the NL still forces its pitchers to hit. Until 1997, the two leagues met only in the World Series. And even then, they played each other only over a designated span of a few weeks in the middle of the summer. That’s no longer true now, as teams play a smattering of interleague games throughout the year. But with the different rules and the fact that teams still play a vast majority of their games against other teams in their own leagues, there remains a clear divide between the leagues. Whether that adds to the charm of baseball or is impractical and a relic of the past is up for debate. But that tired argument is not the subject of this post. I’m writing about the fact that this year, for whatever reason (probably luck), the differences between the leagues is as striking as ever.

The National League is the league of parity. The Cubs have the best record in the league at 54-38, marginally ahead of their divisional rival Brewers. Their +111 run differential indicates that they’re actually probably stronger than their record indicates, but they’ve had an up-and-down year and until this weekend were behind (and at times well behind) the Brewers. After Chicago, no team in the NL has a run differential than the Dodgers’ +80. And Los Angeles started the season poorly and sit at 52-43, a half-game behind the Diamondbacks in the NL West. Some of the best teams in the league so far — the Phillies (53-41), Braves (51-42), and Rockies (50-45) — weren’t supposed to get anywhere near the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Nationals and Cardinals, both favorites to make the playoffs, have slumped to records a game below and a game above .500 respectively, with St. Louis firing manager Mike Matheny last night. 10 NL teams are within nine games of the Cubs, leaving just four teams with records more than two games under .500. And even those four aren’t terrible. The Padres have the worst record in the league at 40-58, which puts them 17 games behind the Cubs. As you’ll see soon, there are AL teams in far worse shape. The Marlins have actually outpaced expectations, while the Reds seemed on their way to a horrific season (they started 8-27) before quickly turning things around (35-25 since). The result is an uber-competitive playoff race. Per Fangraphs’ projections, 10 teams in the league have at least an 18% chance to make the playoffs. Two, the Cubs and Dodgers, are meaningfully better than coin flips to do so.

The weird thing is that the NL wasn’t supposed to be this way. Heading into the season, the Nationals, Cubs, and Dodgers were all heavy favorites to win their respective divisions. They were all predicted to win at least 92 games, far more than any other team in the league. At the other end of the spectrum, the Marlins were predicted to be an utter train wreck, with the Padres not given much better odds at a successful season.

The AL, meanwhile, is the league of the haves and the have-nots. That’s true at a team-wide level but also on a player level. Among hitters, the eight WAR leaders — and 12 of the top 15 — all play in the American League. No NL hitter has been worth more than 3.8 WAR. Mike Trout, Jose Ramirez, and Mookie Betts have been worth 6+ apiece, and Francisco Lindor isn’t far behind. To a lesser extent, this is true of pitchers, too. The top three in WAR are Chris Sale, Trevor Bauer, and Justin Verlander, all of whom play in the American League. The flip-side, of course, is that the AL is also home to the worst of the worst. Just two qualified pitchers have been worth negative WAR: Lucas Giolito (-0.8, 6.59 ERA and 6.35 FIP in 18 starts) and Jakob Junis (-0.3, 5.13 ERA and 5.49 FIP in 17 starts). They both call the AL home. And three hitters have been far worse than anyone else: Alcides Escobar (-1.1 WAR), Victor Martinez (-1.8), and historically-bad Chris Davis (-2.3). Guess which league all three of those players call home?

I can’t remember a season in which there’s been less to play for after the All-Star break for so many teams than there is this year in the AL. The three best teams in baseball are the Yankees, Red Sox, and Astros. That’s inarguable at this point. They’re all at least five games ahead of everyone else in baseball, with the Red Sox on top at 67-30 and the Astros third at 64-34. They also all gulf the league in roster talent and run differential. The Astros’ run differential is an enormous +191, which gives them an expected record of 71-27. The Red Sox are +160 (expected record: 65-32) and the Yankees are +134 (61-33). So not only have the three won by far the most games, but they also haven’t really benefitted from luck (and in the Astros case have actually been unlucky). Following the big three are the Seattle Mariners, who at 58-38 have a better record than any NL team. Unlike Boston/New York/Houston, the Mariners have gotten lucky. They’re 26-11 in one run games and 8-0 in extra innings thanks to the combination of a terrific closer (Edwin Diaz has 36 saves, seven more than anyone else, and leads relievers with 2.4 WAR) and easily the best clutch hitting in baseball. According to Fangraphs’ “Clutch”, which measures how much better or worse a player does in high leverage situations than he does in other situations, the Mariners have a 4.63 “Clutch” rating. The Red Sox are second at 2.79. If you’re interested in seeing that whole list, I’ve attached it here. So the combination of Diaz and situational hitting has allowed the Mariners to excel despite a -1 run differential. Until recently, they, too, seemed like a playoff lock. But the Athletics have made things interesting recently, adding at least a little intrigue to the playoff picture. They’ve won 20 of their last 26 games, drawing within four games of the Mariners. Per Fangraphs, they now have a 24.4% chance to make the playoffs, while the Mariners are still at 70.5%. But that second wild card spot is likely the only remaining playoff question mark, as the Indians, despite underperforming and getting unlucky (their +79 run differential indicates they should be four games better than their 51-43 record), should still cruise to the AL Central title simply because they’re in the worst division in baseball. Besides the six teams I’ve mentioned, only the Rays and Angels have slight chances to make the playoffs, and they’re both probably in the 1-3% (aka, only if they get super hot and something happens to a playoff team) range.

At the other end of the AL standings, there’s utter carnage. Remember how I said that the Padres, the worst team in the NL, are 40-58 and 17 games behind the Cubs? Well, in the AL there are three teams who are far worse than the Padres. They haven’t been getting much grief because of the two teams below them, but the 32-62 White Sox are dreadful. They have a -135 run differential and are likely to try to trade away the few helpful players they still have at the deadline. The Royals and Orioles, meanwhile, look set to post two of the three worst records since 1962, joining the 2003 Tigers (43-119) in rarified air. They’re 27-67 and 27-69 with -184 and -160 run differentials respectively. And they’re a whopping 38.5 and 39.5 games behind the Red Sox, which at this point in the season can’t be that common. The Orioles’ hitters as a team have actually been worth negative WAR, and that’s even before trading Manny Machado, their only productive all-around player. To put that in perspective, the Padres had the worst stable of position players in baseball last year, and they were worth a combined 7.6 WAR. The last team to put together a position player-wide negative WAR season was the Diamondbacks in 2004. Pitching-wise, it’s the Royals who’ve been worth negative WAR, albeit just barely (-0.1). They have a 5.34 team ERA, which in this day in age is really quite incredible. I bet you’re now starting to see another reason that the teams at the top of the league have managed to rack up so many wins and such a strong run differential.

Given the lack of competition for playoff spots, you would think that the rest of the season is going to be a snooze in the AL. But that’s not quite true. It’s still going to be very interesting to see which teams secures homefield advantage and, particularly, who wins the AL East. I kind of hate that we’re back to the Red Sox and Yankees being dominant, but on the other hand baseball is more intense and interesting when that rivalry is strong. And with 10 games still to come between the two rivals (including three in Boston the last weekend of the season), there are sure to be more fireworks coming there. The AL MVP race is also a fun one simply because of the amount of firepower there is. Can Mike Trout, who tops the leaderboards in WAR yet again, win an MVP despite again being on a non-playoff team? Or will Betts, Ramirez, Lindor, or even Aaron Judge take home the award? Unlike in some years, it’s not likely to be an easy answer this time around.

So what should be the takeaways from the differences between the leagues? Here are a few:

  • There are going to be a lot of sellers in the AL (teams that know they have no chance to make the playoffs) and buyers in the NL (teams that think they do) at the trade deadline.
  • One of the two best teams in baseball — Yankees or Red Sox — is going to be forced into a one game wildcard playoff. What will the backlash be to the wildcard system if that team loses?
  • The AL representative in the World Series is almost certainly going to be the favorite.

Finally, it’s interesting to think about which league’s situation is more fun/alluring for neutral fans. I think conventional wisdom would be that of course the league with more teams in the running — the NL — is the answer, but I’m not sure I agree. In fact, while league offices generally profess their desire for parity, I think interest actually goes up when there’s dominance (see: Warriors, Golden State). That’s true for a few reasons. First of all, it’s fun to root against great teams. That’s especially true this year, given that two of the great teams are the Yankees and Red Sox, but I think it’s always the case that it’s a lot easier to form a rooting interest against a dominant team than it is against a meh team like, say, this year’s Brewers or Braves or Phillies. Second of all, it’s fun to watch sports being played at the highest level. That level of awe or appreciation that you may feel towards the Astros or Warriors would be impossible in a league with more equality. And finally, it’s nice to know that it’s not random. It’s nice to benefit from good luck when it happens to your team, but otherwise I think it’s icky to know that a team’s success is largely due to good luck. I like looking at a team before the season and thinking it’s likely to be really good and then seeing that play out over the course of the season. Of course, there are also downsides to the 2018 AL, especially if you’re a fan of the Rays or Angels or Tigers (etc.). But while I’d like there to be a little bit more drama in the American League down the stretch, I can’t complain too much, because I know that the playoffs themselves will be great for the same reason that the regular season is a bit of a snooze fest.

I wrote about the Lakers’ free agency moves yesterday, but believe it or not there were interesting moves made by and deals signed with teams not named the Lakers. I’m going to give my scattered thoughts here:

The first big signing of free agency was Paul George‘s four-year, $137 million deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder with a player option following year three. I can’t say that this move shocked me, because last year’s expectation that George was sure to sign for the Lakers had slowly evolved into a picture of a star truly torn between going home to LA and staying in Oklahoma City. I’m glad that George feels at home in Oklahoma City and that he has formed a strong bond with the organization and with Russell Westbrook, but I think there’s a good chance he’ll end up regretting this move. Because while staying and fighting with Westbrook while eschewing the glitz, comfort of home, and LeBron-ness of LA is admirable, the Thunder are in salary cap hell. They owe $157 million to the 12 players under contract (about $17 million more than the Warriors, whose owners are faced with the second heftiest bill), putting them roughly $55 million over the salary cap and deep into the luxury tax. And while the Warriors’ ownership is paying up for a dynasty, the Thunder were just a solid playoff team last year who bowed out in the first round of last year’s playoffs. They’re bringing back a virtually unchanged team from last year, with two notable exceptions: Andre Roberson will return at some point from injury, and Nerlens Noel has signed a minimum deal. And even after this year, when Carmelo Anthony’s albatross contract mercifully comes off the books, the Thunder will owe $132 million to nine players, including about $97 million to Westbrook, George, and Steven Adams, all of whom are signed through at least 2020-21. For better or for worse, the Thunder are locked into this core barring a huge trade. Re-signing George was obviously a no-brainer for Oklahoma City, but Sam Presti is going to have to pull a rabbit out of his hat if he wants this team to compete with the Warriors (and potentially other looming superpowers?) in the near future. Otherwise, George could regret re-upping with a capped-out team.

I found it funny that the Warriors managed to find a way to sign DeMarcus Cousins, arguably the most talented free agent not named LeBron James to switch teams. I say funny, and not depressing or devastating, because I don’t actually think Cousins will help them all that much. Here’s why:

  • He’s a 6’11”, 270 pound center who tore his Achilles late last January. Studies have shown that Achilles tears are extremely hard to come back strong from, and that’s especially true for a big like Cousins. He’s unlikely to see the court before 2019, and even then I think it’s unlikely that he’ll ever sniff, say, 25 minutes per game. Even if he does come back and play well, there’s almost no chance that he’ll be the same DeMarcus Cousins he was before the injury. So we shouldn’t be reacting as if the Warriors just signed DEMARCUS COUSINS.
  • It’s a one-year deal. So even if Cousins is absolutely incredible, the Warriors will lose him next July because they won’t have the cap space to re-sign him.
  • The Warriors were going to be heavily favored to win next season’s championship anyway. Their odds went from -110 to win before they signed Cousins to… -110 after they signed Boogie. That’s not to say that Cousins can’t help, but rather that there’s at least as much of a chance that he’ll be a net neutral or even a negative. This is not the same as the Warriors signing Kevin Durant.

Still, it’s amazing that the Warriors managed to add another All-NBA player to the fold.

This is more of a general comment, but it was jarring to see how many free agents opted to sign one-year deals. I say “opted to” because I’m talking not about the fringe players who had no choice but to sign short deals but rather about the mid-tier players who could likely have gotten three or four years if they wanted. Some examples: J.J. Redick, Tyreke Evans, DeAndre Jordan, Julius Randle (two years, but the second is a player option), Trevor Ariza, Rajon Rondo, Rudy Gay, etc. The mid-tier free agents who got more years (Doug McDermott-3 for 22; Ersan Ilyasova-3 for 21; Jerami Grant-3 for 27) are noteworthy because they went the traditional route and locked in more guaranteed money. It appears that the majority of free agents, though, recognized that this was a relatively team-friendly market (i.e. not a lot of teams with cap space) and will take their chances next year, when there should be much more cash flowing. The consequence: there’ll be a lot of teams with cap space, but also a lot of depth in free agency, which means we’re in for an interesting summer of 2019.

The big deal that’s not getting talked about enough is Houston’s gargantuan deal with Chris Paul. The Rockets gave their second star a fully guaranteed four years and $160 million. I suppose the Rockets had to do the deal just because their window is small and would close without Paul, but boy is that deal going to look bad in a couple of years (if not sooner). Paul is a 6’0″ point guard who’s 33-years-old and has developed a reputation for being injury prone. Of course, nobody will care about those last few years if the Rockets win a championship, but they’d better do that quickly.

The Wizards look like big free agency losers. Haven’t we seen enough of Jeff Green and Dwight Howard to determine that they aren’t helpful players on good teams? Sure, Green had a couple of nice games against Boston in last year’s Cleveland-Boston series, but he’s an incredibly inconsistent player who can’t be counted on. Ditto for Howard, who is switching teams for the fourth consecutive year. Washington still should have playoff aspirations, but they could be in really bad shape really quickly. John Wall signed a massive extension last year that doesn’t kick in until after next season. He’ll be signed through 2022-23 for over $42 million a year. Not great for a point guard who’s an inconsistent shooter and has had injury problems. This upcoming year is the last one with Wall signed at a reasonable number ($19 million), and the Wizards are trying to capitalize on that by signing Green and Howard and trading Marcin Gortat for Austin Rivers. But if you’re counting on Rivers, Green, and Howard to bring new belief to a team that finished eighth in the Eastern Conference last year, well, good luck. If I were a team in need of a good shooting guard, I would start calling about Bradley Beal right about now.

The Nuggets remain one of the most interesting teams in the NBA. They were a game away from making the playoffs last year and have a young team that should only improve. They locked in both Nikola Jokic and Will Barton to long-term contracts and after dealing Wilson Chandler are a Kenneth Faried or Darrell Arther trade away from shedding enough money to avoid the luxury tax. You would think that a starting lineup of Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Barton, Paul Millsap, and Jokic would be a surefire playoff team, and I do think that they’ll be favorites to make the postseason with a healthy Millsap. But it’s hard to get super excited about any team with Nikola Jokic as its lone star given all the firepower in the Western Conference. I’ll be rooting for the Nuggets, because I think it’d be cool if they made some noise in the postseason.

Aaron Gordon, who was a restricted free agent, signed a four-year, $84 million deal to stay with the Orlando Magic. I think the Magic did well to get Gordon to commit long-term for “just” $21 million per year, or less than max money. And I’m intrigued by a Gordon-Mo Bamba frontcourt in the longterm. The fact that Bismack Biyombo is under contract for two more years at $17 million, though, is rather problematic.

Speaking of restricted free agents (RFAs), there are still a bunch of them out there who have neither re-signed nor signed offer sheets with other teams. Among them: Clint Capela, Marcus Smart, Jabari Parker, Jusuf Nurkic, Zach LaVine, and Rodney Hood. It seems likely that most or all of them will be unhappy with the offers they get from elsewhere simply because there isn’t much money left. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the RFAs took their qualifying offer (one year for 125% of their previous year’s salary) and took their chances in next year’s free agency as unrestricted free agents along with everyone else. Otherwise, their current teams could be able to retain them on really cheap long-term contracts. As a Celtics-hater, I’m hoping that Smart at least opts to take his QO and become an unrestricted free agent next year.