By Norm Elrod
(CBS Boston/CBS Local) -- The end of Spring Training means Opening Day and the 2019 MLB season are officially here. It may not seem like Spring outside, depending on where you are. But come Thursday, regardless of the temperature, all 30 teams will take the field for the first game (or third, if you're Oakland and Seattle) of at least 162.
Every team is still in the race, for now. And every team has reasons to be optimistic, even the Baltimore Orioles.
This week's Spring Training Report, the last for this year, looks at Opening Day and predicts what teams will play into October. We'll also highlight possible MVP candidates going into the season.
MLB Opening Day is Thursday, March 28, with all 30 MLB teams in action. Technically the season started last week, when the Mariners beat the Athletics twice in the Japan Opening Series. But Ichiro's goodbye to fans was also a hello to the 2019 season.
This will be MLB's earliest opening day in history, aside from special international games. Making the season a little longer builds extra days into the schedule, to allow for additional rest and chances to reschedule games. Ten of the 15 games on Thursday will be divisional matchups, including the New York Mets vs. the Washington Nationals, who both expect to contend for the National League East and the St. Louis Cardinals vs. Milwaukee Brewers in a matchup of NL Central rivals.
Predictions for Each Division
How will the division races play out?
The American League East features MLB's two best teams in the the World Series champion Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. They should dominate the division, with the Yankees having a slight edge given their punishing offense. Both teams should win 100 games and easily make the postseason. With a little luck, the Tampa Bays Rays could slip in as the second Wild Card.
One team has to win the dreadful AL Central, and that team is the Cleveland Indians. The Tribe isn't great, but it's way better than the rest of the division, which probably doesn't have another 80-game winner. The Indians will start the campaign with shortstop Francisco Lindor -- one of their two best hitters -- on the disabled list. But the starting rotation features three possible Cy Young candidates. Look for the Minnesota Twins to come in a distant second.
The AL West belongs to the Houston Astros, MLB's third-best team going into the season. They should win 100 games and take the division. But that's probably not enough anymore. One season removed from their last MLB title, the Astros' biggest challenge will be getting past the beasts in the East. And they (still) have the arms and bats to do it. The Oakland Athletics could push them and should challenge for the second Wild Card spot.
The NL East is the most competitive division in the Majors, with four teams that could win 80 games. The Nationals, with a strong young outfield and one of MLB's best rotations, should come out on top, at least before their traditional postseason implosion. But the Philadelphia Phillies now have Bryce Harper roaming the outfield and blasting home runs. And the Mets, who just decided to pay Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom, look rejuvenated. So a division title in DC is far from assured.
Expectations are high in Chicago, and the Cubs should win the NL Central after falling just short last season. Multiple players should bounce back from seasons marred by injury, including Kris Bryant and Yu Darvish. The team has the hitting if pitching can hold up. The improved Cardinals may push them. And while the Brewers won't duplicate last season's win total, they could slip in as a wild card.
The Los Angeles Dodgers are the National League's best team and the class of the NL West. They should win their seventh straight division title and will have their eyes on the World Series. With a deep roster and strong pitching, anything less than a title will probably be seen as a failure. The Colorado Rockies, on the strength of their pitching rotation, should contend as well. But they're playing for a Wild Card.
Possible MVP Candidates
What about the MVP races?
The American League may just be a two-man race between the most recent two winners: Mookie Betts and Mike Trout. The Los Angeles Angels' outfielder, a two-time AL MVP, holds a slight edge. Trout hit .312 in 2018 with 39 home runs and was a Gold Glove runner-up in center field. The ink is still drying on his $430 million contract. The Red Sox outfielder hit .346 with 32 home runs and earned a Gold Glove for the World Series champions in his 2018 MVP season.
The National League expects Bryce Harper to bounce back from a disappointing 2018. The Phillies outfielder and six-time all-star, who earned the honor in 2015, certainly has the potential to do it again. Nolan Arenado, the Colorado Rockies third-baseman, also has a strong chance. The six-time Gold Glover is a defensive dynamo at the corner. And hitting .297 with 38 home runs makes him one of the NL's better hitters too.
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