Too Early Baseball Predictions: A Freeway Series Final

Is this finally the year for Yasiel Puig and the revamped Dodgers?

Pitchers and catchers just reported, and spring training is under way for the 2015 Major League Baseball season.

We are now 38 days from Opening Day in baseball and plan to bring you player projections as well as divisional previews over the next couple weeks. And since we're in the business of projecting, we figured we would offer up some too early playoff and World Series predictions.

Throughout this article, the playoff matchups will be decided based on each team's respective nERD ranking. If you're unfamiliar with nERD, that's our in-house metric that calculates how good each team is. This calculation shows the run differential of one team over an average team on any day when playing on a neutral field.

As such, this nERD-only approach doesn't take into account how the individual teams would match up against each other or factor in which team has homefield advantage in the series, so don't go breaking the bank with bets on these hypothetical outcomes, but the exercise is a fun one regardless.

So who's hoisting the Commissioner's Trophy at the end of the season based on our initial projections? Let's find out below!

Top Heavy Senior Circuit

Wild Card RoundNLDSNLCS 
Cardinals (4) Dodgers (1)  
Giants (5)  Dodgers 
 Nationals (2)  
 Pirates (3) 

In our preseason rankings, the National League boasts the top two spots as well as five of the top seven. The Nationals and Dodgers lead the way thanks to two dominant aces, Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw, respectively. Both teams are the only two teams to start the season with at least a 70% chance to win their division partly due to their pitching staffs but mostly due to the lack of talent of their division foes.

The NL East should be a breeze for the Nationals, as they'll likely have the division crown wrapped up in August considering we don't project another team from the division to finish above .500. The Dodgers will have to contend with the Giants at some point, but they should be able to put enough distance on them to take the division crown.

The Central will be a closely watched division as the Pirates and Cardinals are about as evenly matched as you can get. We project both to have 87 wins and the Pirates' nERD score is just 0.02 points higher (0.40 to 0.38), likely putting them in position to win the division either by head-to-head record with the Cardinals or a play-in game. Either way, both teams make the playoffs, setting up the remainder of our postseason bracket for the National League.

Wild Card Game
The Pirates and Cardinals aren't the only Senior Circuit teams to project to 87 wins. The Giants are projected for 87, as well. That will set up an interesting wild card game between the Giants and likely the Cardinals, according to our nERD rankings.

The postseason tiebreaker rules can get confusing depending on the situation, but whomever has the best head-to-head record will get to host this game. If teams are still tied, intradivision and interleague records are then looked at. Homefield advantage could be the deciding factor in this matchup, but based off our nERD rankings, the Cardinals would move on in this game.

NLDS Matchups
With the Cardinals having to play a wild card game and having the possibility of being involved in a play-in game for their division, they will have little rest as they take on a team that our numbers peg as the top team in the National League: the Dodgers. If Clayton Kershaw continues his domination of baseball, the Dodgers and their revamped team should be able to get by a weary Cardinals team.

In the other NLDS matchup, we project the number-two and number-four overall teams from our power rankings to face off. The Nationals have their super-rotation while the Pirates have Andrew McCutchen and a really, really good outfield. McCutchen will need some offensive support and a pitching staff that can perform up to expectation to have a chance in this series. But we have the Nationals moving on with a nERD of 0.58 compared to the Pirates' 0.40.

While the casual fan may end up hating a series pitting the Nationals against the Dodgers, purists will love it. We'd get Kershaw versus Scherzer at least twice in the series leading to some great pitching duels between the two teams.

Our numbers project these two teams as the only two teams to see more than 90 wins this season, and it should be neck and neck down the stretch to see which teams claims the top seed in the league. We won't be able to stop talking about the possibility of this series as the playoffs get closer. According to our initial projections, though, the Dodgers should prevail if the teams do square off, punching a ticket to the World Series.

Chasing the American League Wild Card

Wild Card RoundALDSALCS 
Mariners (4) Angels (1)  
Tigers (5)  Angels 
  Red Sox 
 Red Sox (2)  
 Indians (3) 

While the National League is top-heavy, the American League is a muddied picture. We project eight teams to be within six games of each other for the two wild card spots with the Mariners, Tigers, and Athletics leading the pack. One of the teams that isn't in that race is the defending American League champion Royals, however. We expect them to finish third in their division with only a 19.6% chance to make it back to the playoffs.

Our projections expect all the division races to be extremely close, too. In the Central, we like the Indians over the Tigers just a little more, as they have at 43.4% to win the division compared to the Tigers' 35.8% chance, but we're projecting only a one-game difference for the two teams. For a more detailed breakdown of the division, check out our AL Central preview.

Expect more of the same in the East and West divisions as well. The Angels and Red Sox are plugged in as the division winners, but they each have less than a 40% chance to win their respective division, and two teams are projected to be within three games of both division leaders.

Wild Card Game
As I mentioned above, the Mariners, Tigers and Athletics are expected to be the front-runners for the two wild card spots, but each team from the AL East (minus the Red Sox) are expected to challenge for a wild card spot as well. As close as all these teams are, don't be surprised to see a play-in game for the second wild card spot.

But for argument's sake, we expect a matchup of the Mariners and Tigers. The Mariners are projected for 86 wins while the Tigers and A's are both projected for 84. According to our nERD values, the Athletics (0.31) have a slightly better team compared to the Tigers (0.28), but since our numbers see it as a close call, we'll give the edge to the Tigers based on the playoff chances our algorithms gave us: 49.4% over the A's 46.6%.

Whoever does make it between those two teams would have to face the Mariners, who start the preseason with a 0.37 nERD. We wouldn't expect the A's or the Tigers to edge out the Mariners, thus allowing them to move on to face their division-rival Angels in the ALDS.

ALDS Matchups
Seattle's having a best-of-seven series against the Angels isn't exactly a big prize for winning the wild card game. The Mariners can rely on Felix Hernandez, but if the rest of their pitching staff isn't up to par, they'll succumb to what should be one of the best offenses in baseball. Our numbers agree, as the Angels are projected to be the top team in the American League and number-three in our power rankings with a 0.48 nERD, and we would anticipate their knocking off the Mariners.

In the other ALDS matchup, the Red Sox have come back from the cellar of their division for the second time in three years and have the young upstart Indians to take on. This could really come down to which lineup is better throughout the series as both teams tried to upgrade their bats in the offseason. The difference in their nERD values is small, indicating a close, and probably extended, series for the two teams. But we'll take the Red Sox, as they win the nERD battle, 0.34 to 0.29.

ALCS Matchup
The key for the Angels might be the return of Garrett Richards. After losing him late-August last year, the Angels still streaked towards the playoffs but missed having his arm for the pennant race. Even if he doesn't play a full season, having him for half of a season and the playoffs this year could make all the difference.

But while the Angels tried to restock their rotation for 2015 and bring in some major-league ready prospects, the Red Sox went out and signed Pablo Sandoval to bolster their offense and then acquired Hanley Ramirez as icing on the cake. But can the Red Sox go from worst-to-first and win it all for the second time in three years? We don't think so. The Angels' nERD is much higher (0.48 to 0.34) than Boston's, allowing the Angels to move on to the World Series for the first time since 2002.

World Series: Angels and Dodgers

The Angels have spent the last two years hoping their power triumvirate of Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and Josh Hamilton would come to haunt pitchers all around the league. That hasn't been the case yet, but for this "Freeway Series" to actually take place, they'll need everyone healthy and everyone hitting on all cylinders.

The Dodgers have retooled half of their lineup and infield thanks to key departures of Hanley Ramirez and Dee Gordon but still have a bevy of quality hitters throughout their lineup. Kershaw will be Kershaw, but he needs to step it up in the playoffs. This could be the year for the Dodgers even though the chemistry of the team is in question with a bunch of new players again.

However, when we go by the numbers, the Dodgers are head and shoulders above all teams this year and have a sizable advantage over the Angels (0.78 to 0.48). We won't be surprised if the Commissioner's Trophy remains in California this coming September.